Sickness absence could rise when economy recovers and jobs are more secure

Sickness absence levels could “creep back up again” once the economy recovers and people feel more secure in their jobs, employment experts have warned.

The CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey, published today, revealed sickness absence dropped last year to the lowest level on record, with employees taking on average 6.4 days off.

But employment experts said a key cause of the drop was a fear by employees about their job security and that sick days could be taken into consideration when selecting for redundancy, so this drop could be reversed when the economy picked up.

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, told Personnel Today: “The economic environment does have an impact on absence levels, so I imagine once the labour market becomes more positive then people will feel more confident they can take time off without being penalised.

“I think once there’s an economic recovery in a meaningful way, the chances are we will see absence levels creep back up again.”

Willmott warned presenteeism due to job security fears during the downturn was an issue employers must address as it “could escalate” and lead to reduced productivity and staff ultimately signing off on long-term sick leave.

“It’s absolutely critical that employers are aware presenteeism in the current environment is an issue they need to take seriously,” he said. “They need to make sure line managers are equipped with the necessary people skills so they can identify the early warning signs.”

Katherine Ashby, a researcher in the health and wellbeing team at The Work Foundation, agreed it “is possible that absence could rise again” and that the drop last year could be linked to a rise in presenteeism in the workplace.

Research by the Work Foundation and Axa PPP in April found presenteeism when ill prevailed more than sickness absence, with 45% of staff reporting they had come to work when unwell.

Ashby urged employers to look at absence and presenteeism together as “absence doesn’t tell you the whole picture of what’s happening”.

“It’s dangerous to see lower levels of absence as a good thing if people are coming into work ill and that’s not addressed,” she said.

But Neil Carberry, head of employment at the CBI, insisted the drop in sickness absence was not a result of the recession, but was part of a longer-term trend that has seen absence levels fall since its peak of 9.1 days 1991.

“I don’t think it was driven by the recession,” he said. “We have seen a longer-term trend in this direction, and the change in the private sector is quite limited and is broadly the same as in 2007. In the public sector there has been a drop, and that’s due to rehabilitation policies being rolled out there.”

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