Long-term absenteeism jumps despite employer investment

Posted on 16 Jun 2014 by Callum Bentley

The government’s work and wellbeing agenda has come under fire after a study reveals the flagship programme is failing to deliver on reducing unnecessary sickness absence in the workplace.

  • Overall sickness absence at record low
  • Long-term absence increases with stress and mental health disorders showing biggest increase
  • Short-term absence and zero absence rates more or less plateaued
  • Manufacturers increasingly investing in absence management and paying for treatment

The Fit Note was introduced four years ago as a means of getting people back to work sooner by showing the employee was fit to work, rather than the previous sick note method.

However the latest Sickness Absence survey published by manufacturing organization, EEF alongside Jelf Employee Benefits shows the system has so far failed to deliver, with long-term absence rates increasing.

The survey shows overall levels of absence have reached a record low of 2.1%, equivalent to 4.9 days per employee per year. This remains around the levels seen over the past few years and suggests the situation has plateaued with big inroads into short-term absence already made.

However, the survey reveals that long-term absence has increased with almost two fifths of companies citing long-term absence increases in the past two years.

The survey also highlights an increase in stress and mental health illnesses as a cause of long-term sickness absence.

Commenting, Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at EEF said: “Driving down absence rates, helping more employees return to work earlier and, encouraging their wellbeing is critical for our economy. But, despite employers increasing investment in managing sickness absence and, providing their employees with more health related benefits, the improvement in overall absence rates has more or less now plateaued.

“From now on the focus has to be on reducing long-term absence which is only going to happen if we up our game. This must start by making the Fit Note work so that it can make real inroads on delivering the objective of reducing unnecessary sickness absence.”

Iain Laws, Managing Director – UK Healthcare at Jelf Employee Benefits, added: “A focus on prevention must become a priority for UK employers who need to maintain a competitive workforce within an overall population that is both ageing and ailing. This is not only essential to tackle absence but to also address the less easily identifiable issue of presenteeism (reduced job performance resulting from ill health). This is fundamentally a wellbeing problem with stress and musculoskeletal issues almost certainly mirrored as the main causes as with absenteeism.

“Furthermore, we believe that every day the Health & Work Service is delayed, it costs UK manufacturers time and money in lost productivity and additional administration in getting employees back to work.”

According to the survey, stress and other mental health related disorders have shown the biggest increase in long term absence with just over half of companies reporting it as a cause, an increase of 7% in the last five years. A fifth of companies cited it as the most common cause, an increase of 4% in the last five years. This possibly reflects, for the first time, evidence of the effect on employees of the long period of recession and austerity.

This increase comes despite more investment by employers in managing sickness absence and, placing employee health and well-being programmes on a par with other business investments. Two thirds of companies now have sickness absence programmes, while 68% of companies offer access to occupational health services for employees. Over a quarter of companies also offer employee assistance programmes, health checks and health cash plans.