Sickness absence is falling but studies disagree on the reason

Depending on who you want to believe, sickness absence is either falling fast because of the recession, or the downturn has led to a glut of sick days with stressed-out workers across Europe concocting more and more excuses not to come in.

Three surveys in June and July painted different pictures of sickness absence and attendance. First, the annual absence poll from Unum and the manufacturing body EEF argued that employers gained an average of one extra day of work per employee last year because of lower absence rates.

On average, employees took 5.6 days sickness in 2009 compared with 6.8 days in 2007, with 44% of employees not taking a day off last year.

Moreover, the introduction of the fit note in April had the potential to lead to further significant reductions in absence levels.

Professor Sayeed Khan, EEF chief medical adviser, said: “The decline in absence levels could be a consequence of the recession and relatively slow recovery of the UK economy. Another possibility is that the recession, with its accompanying redundancies, has made employees more aware of the time they are taking off.”

Professor Michael O’Donnell, chief medical officer at Unum, said: “The fit note plays a key role in absence management as it can help reduce the duration of absence for people recovering from treatments or operations. Doctors may previously have been over-cautious in advising return to work when the only option they had was to declare full fitness. With the fit note, doctors can, and should, advise a graduated return to work where possible.”

Its findings mainly tally with the annual absence survey by the CBI and Pfizer, published in June, which concluded that the rate of absence was now at its lowest rate since the CBI started polling in 1987.

At much the same time, research by healthcare provider Bupa concluded that nearly half of UK workers – 49% – who took sick leave in the past 12 months continued to work in some shape or form despite being unwell.

About one-third read or responded to emails, a further quarter took work-related phone calls, one fifth worked online and 15% did background reading and research. A stubborn 2% even hosted meetings from their sick beds, it found.

But a survey of 7,500 European workers by Aon Consulting argued that, rather than employees becoming more committed during the recession, there was a rise in sick days, with 15% of workers feigning time off work at a cost of more than €40 billion (£34 billion).

It calculated that 120 million sick days a year were taken for personal reasons rather than illness, with the Spanish the most likely to admit having taken a sickie (22%),followed by UK workers, the Irish (both 21%) and the Dutch (20%). The Danish (4%) and Norwegians (10%) are the least likely to have taken a sick day off work under false pretences.

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