By Claire West

The EEF/Unum 2010 Sickness Absence Survey shows that from 2007 to 2009 there has been a steady fall in sickness absence, with the average employee taking 5.6 days sickness in 2009 compare to 6.8 days in 2007 — a gain for employers of on average one extra day of work per employee during 2009.

According to the report, 41% of companies saw a decrease in short-term sickness absence in 2009, a climb of 9% from 2008, while nearly a third (32%) of companies saw a decrease in long-term sickness absence over the past two years, up from 26% the year before. On average, 44% of employees did not take a single day off work sick during 2009, continuing an improving trend since 2007; and this despite the swine flu pandemic.

Unum and EEF believe the reduction in employee sickness absence may be linked to the global recession and the pace of economic recovery in the UK.

Professor Sayeed Khan, EEF Chief Medical Adviser says: "The clear decline in absence levels could be a consequence of the recession and relatively slow recovery of the UK economy. Another possibility is that the recession, with its accompanying redundancies, has made employees more aware of the time they are taking off."

Professor Michael O’Donnell, Chief Medical Officer at Unum says that despite the decrease, sickness absence overall is still a very real issue for many companies.

“Long-term sickness absence, where an employee has been off work for more than a month, has a substantial effect on UK industry as well as for the social welfare of the population. The cost of this is potentially much higher than short-term absence, due to the expense of replacement staff, agency fees and many other indirect costs associated with absence — all a major headache for employers.”

Another important finding is the potential the fit note, introduced in April this year, has for reducing sickness absence. The survey results show that a significant proportion (54%) of companies have employees on long-term sickness absence because they are recovering from treatment or an operation, or waiting for treatment or even for an initial appointment.

Professor Michael O’Donnell, Chief Medical Officer at Unum, says: “The fit note plays a key role in absence management as it can help reduce the duration of absence for people recovering from treatments or operations. Doctors may previously have been overcautious in advising return to work when the only option they had was to declare full fitness. With the fit note, doctors can and should advise a graduated return to work where possible.”

Dame Carol Black comments: "Being in work is good for most people, whether or not they have a health condition; and being unemployed is almost always harmful. Not only does being unemployed curb material progress, social participation and standing in the community, it threatens self esteem, wellbeing and health.

"It is in everyone’s best interest to enable people to return to work as soon as possible after sickness absence, and even better if we can help them avoid sickness absence altogether. The new Occupational Health Advice line for small and medium-sized enterprises, the pilot Fit for Work Services, and introduction of the fit note — the statement of fitness for work — supported by education and training programmes, are essential elements towards making this happen."

Other findings include:

•The research reveals the top causes of short-term sickness absence as: ‘minor illness’, ‘back pain and other joint / muscular problems; the same as for the past three years.

•For cases of long-term sickness absence, the main causes are surgery or medical investigations and tests, back problems, cancer and mental ill health, excluding stress; the same as for the past three years

•The report highlights a significant decrease in stress as a cause of long-term sickness absence, which the authors state may be a reflection that EEF member organisations are gradually tackling stress related to work or that employees would rather have another diagnosis than ‘stress’.

•50% of companies reported a decrease in short-term sickness absence if the managers were trained, compared to 36% reporting a decrease when no training had taken place.

Consistently, employers reporting barriers to rehabilitation have an overall sickness absence rate that is 0.6% higher than those with no barriers. This is 1.3 days per employee and equates to about 3.25 million lost days across manufacturing in GB [or about £350 million cost to employers, based on £13.94 hourly cost]

The number of EEF companies reporting that they have a written absence management policy continues to rise, with only 7% now reporting that they do not have a policy against 9% in 2008 and 13% in 2007