Sickness absence drops to lowest level on record during the recession

The recession has led to the lowest sickness absence levels on record, but is still costing business £16.8bn a year, new research has revealed.

Employees took on average 6.4 days off sick last year, which amounted to 180 million lost working days, according to the CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey.

This level of absence was the lowest since the survey began in 1987, and dropped from the 6.7 days taken per employee in 2007 – the previous surveyed year.

Katja Hall, director of employment policy at the CBI, said: “The rate of employee absence has come down, but it still costs the economy billions of pounds a year. If absence levels across the board could be reduced by 10%, the economy would see annual savings of just under £1.7bn.

“Unfortunately, bogus sick days remain a problem, and are unfair on hard-working colleagues and employers alike.”

The survey of 241 senior HR staff at public and private sector organisations found that around 27 million sick days (15%) were not genuine, and cost the country £2.5bn a year.

Larger organisations were also found to have higher rates of absence than smaller ones. Those with 5,000 or more staff had an average absence of 6.6 days per year, and for those with 500 to 4,999 it was 6.7 days. But for organisations with 200 to 499, it was 5.8 days.

While public sector sickness absence did fall, it remained 43% higher than in the private sector.

In the public sector, employees took an average of 8.3 days per year, compared to nine days in 2007, but the private sector took on average only 5.8 days.

Hall said: “Although the rate of employee absence has fallen in the public sector, it is still a lot higher than in the private sector, and this issue should be addressed, especially given that the public finances are strained. We estimate that £5.5bn could be saved by 2015-16 if the public sector matched the private sector’s absence rate.”

Long-term absence was found to have accounted for 5% of absences, but the longer periods of sickness meant it accounted for 20% of lost days in the private sector and 36% in the public sector. Back pain and mental health issues were the key causes of long-term absence, according to the survey.

Some 95% of organisations were also shown to have a formal absence policy – a rise of 10% compared with 2007 figures.

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