Slightly fewer days were lost to absence last year, with UK employees taking an average of 6.7 days off each – 172 million compared with the seven days reported in 2006, the CBI/AXA survey said.
The survey, At Work and Working Well?, concluded there was a nine-day difference between the best and worst performing organisations, and that if the worst could be pulled up to the levels of the best, it could save the economy £5.9bn a year.
The direct cost of workplace absence was more than £13bn, rising when indirect costs were included to £20bn, it calculated.
The billions ploughed into the NHS by the government since 1997 appear to have had little effect on workplace health. Just 8% of employers said improvements in the NHS had contributed most to declining rates of absence.
By comparison, 85% thought closer monitoring of absence was the key and 83% cited improved attendance management policies.
More than three-quarters of the employers polled now operated rehabilitation policies, a threefold increase since 2001, with OH, counselling and flexible working the most common services.
While just 5% of absence was long-term, it accounted for 40% of time lost, the survey said.
Two-thirds of the employers polled believed some absence represented unauthorised extensions of weekends or holidays, and employers felt about 12% of absence was not genuine.
But CBI director of HR policy Susan Anderson also stressed that, while absence needed to be tackled, the underlying issue was often poor management. “There is a strong correlation between a happy organisation and a healthy organisation in absence rates,” she said.