Sickness absence surveys reveal conflicting results

A slew of workplace absence statistics have come to differing conclusions about just how much sickness absence is costing the UK economy.

The annual CBI/Pfizer “Absence and workplace health survey”, which is traditionally one of the most respected snapshots of UK absence, has this year calculated that the country’s economy lost 190 million working days to absence in 2010, with each employee taking 6.5 days off sick on average.

This equated to a cost to the economy of £17 billion, including more than £2.7 billion from 30.4 million days of non-genuine sickness absence, or so-called “sickies”, but did not include indirect costs of absence, such as lower customer service and lost productivity, the survey said.

By comparison, a survey by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers argued that UK workers take on average 10 days of unscheduled absence from their jobs each year, around twice that of their US and Asia-Pacific counterparts, but on a par with much of the rest of Western Europe.

With the average UK salary standing at around £25,000, this meant absenteeism was costing British business approximately £32 billion per year, it extrapolated, again not taking into account the indirect costs such as potential replacement costs and lost productivity.

However, at the same time, the well-regarded EEF/Westfield Health 2011 Sickness absence survey has conversely argued that from 2007 to 2010 there has been a steady fall in sickness absence, with the average employee now taking five days off sick in 2010, compared with 6.7 days in 2007. It also noted a record 45% of employees who took no days off through sickness in 2010.

A further study by insurance firm Group Risk Development has “uncovered” a significant discrepancy in absence trends between the public and private sectors, although in reality this is a gap that has been highlighted many times over the years, not least by the CBI survey.

Its poll of 500 employers found that one-third of public sector employers said that the average employee took more than five days off sick per year, compared with 15.9% in the private sector.

The CBI poll, meanwhile, said that the introduction of the fit note in April 2010 had yet to lead to any marked statistical improvement in absence rates, with the rate of absence for 2010 in fact marginally higher than 2009’s average of 6.4 sick days, which had been the lowest rate since the survey began in 1987.

Two-thirds of firms polled said the fit note had not yet helped their rehabilitation policy, and 71% had not been confident that GPs were using it any differently from the old sick note.

XpertHR provides a good practice guide on sickness absence management, and a survey suggests that the involvement of line managers is key to tackling sickness absence.

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