Absence rates are on the mend

When it comes to managing and reducing absence in the workplace, the mantra of many an OH professional has been ‘responsibility, intervention, rehabilitation’. And, according to this year’s CBI/Axa absence survey, the message is finally getting through to business leaders.

The authoritative annual survey, this year entitled Absence Minded, has shown that absence levels are continuing to fall, and currently stand at 6.6 days per employee – their lowest level since 1987.

However, the gap between the best and worst performers means there is no room for complacency, as CBI HR policy director Susan Anderson makes clear. “If the worst performers could reduce absence to the levels of the best, absence costs could fall by as much as £5.4bn,” she said.

It is how firms are striving to achieve that reduction that inevitably makes the most interesting reading for OH professionals. Anderson argues that commitment to and responsibility for absence from senior and HR managers is key.

“A combination of carrot and stick is most effective,” she said. “Policies which also have a significant impact on absence levels include private medical insurance, which can reduce absence by up to two days, and ‘waiting days’ before paying occupational sick pay, which can reduce absence by up to one day when used,” she said.

Similarly, while there is a recognition that most absence is genuine and long-term – making early intervention and medical treatment the best remedy – the survey estimates that ‘sickies’ still account for an estimated 10% of all absence, costing the UK economy 1.2bn.

“To reduce absence even further, we need to cut down on absenteeism while offering support to those employees who are genuinely ill,” says Anderson. “This is what good absence management is about.”

Perhaps one of the most welcome findings for OH professionals in this year’s survey is the sharp increase in the number of organisations now offering rehabilitation services. It now stands at 84%, compared with 24% in the 2005 survey. Incentives to encourage employers to offer, or offer more, rehabilitation services, include better support from GPs and some assistance with costs.

Dudley Lusted, head of healthcare development at Axa, agrees that there is a growing consensus at all levels that intervention and rehabilitation can and do work.

“Increasingly, there is a recognition that people do go off sick with nasty things, but that the real management challenge is harnessing your medical and management skills to get them back into some form of work, even if it is not doing the same thing that they were doing before,” he said.

Similarly, the argument that early intervention is the best course of action has by and large been won.

The survey also found that those organisations that provided access to medical care or treatment for their staff (30%) generally had the lowest level of absence.

“You do not have to have full-blown private medical insurance to help individuals back into work,” said Lusted. “But what you do need to do is have some policies in place and be consistent.”

When it came to stress management, 74% of the respondents said they had a policy, while 40% had a formal policy.

Flexible working was seen as one of the most common approaches to tackling stress, along with providing access to OH and job reorganisation or redesign.

But if OH practitioners think this increased profile for their work will lead to increased responsibility, they may be disappointed. Around a fifth of organisations gave OH professionals some responsibility for managing absence last year – the same as the survey’s findings from previous years.

Key findings


  • 6.6 days were lost per employee in 2005
  • The difference between the best- and worst-performing organisations is 8.8 days
  • Manual staff have higher absence rates than non-manual, although rates have fallen significantly
  • Public sector absence is 30% higher than the private sector, and small firms generally have the lowest rates of absence
  • Organisations represented by trade unions have higher levels of absence
  • Long-term absence accounts for more than a third of working time lost
  • Employers believe just over 10% of absence cases are not genuine
  • Genuine sickness and minor illnesses cause the majority of absence, but too often absence is seen as an “entitlement”.


  • The average direct cost of absence is 531 per employee – the highest reported by the survey
  • Indirect costs (poorer quality of service, extra training etc) are 584 per employee.


  • Three-quarters of organisations monitor the causes of sickness absence, and 85% say they are taking action to reduce absence
  • In most organisations, line managers have primary responsibility for managing absence
  • Absence is lowest where HR managers have primary responsibility
  • Occupational health intervention is effective in reducing absence rates. Other effective methods include private medical insurance and private medical care, attendance bonuses, waiting days before paying occupational sick pay, and rehabilitation services
  • 84% of employers now offer rehabilitation services (up from 24%) and smaller organisations tend to intervene earlier
  • Three-quarters of firms now offer stress management policies.

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