Staff absence cost UK £13bn in 2005

The cost of staff absence to the UK economy rose to more than £13bn in 2005 – its highest level ever – according to a survey of 400 organisations.

The latest annual CBI / AXA Absence Survey, published today, reveals that absence levels were 30% higher across public sector organisations than in the private sector.

The survey attributes the rise in cost to greater appreciation by employers’ of the true cost of absence and the increasing cost of temporary cover.

However, the total number of days lost through absence across the UK economy fell in 2005 by four million to 164 million days. This is the lowest level since the survey began in 1987.

Based on the current rate of change in the public sector – from 8.9 days in 2002 to 8.5 days in this year’s survey – it would take 30 years for it to reduce absence rates to the average six days lost per employee in the private sector.

The survey suggests that a “culture of absenteeism” still exists in too many workplaces. As many as 13% of days lost to sickness in 2005 were considered non-genuine by employers – in other words staff ‘pulling sickies’ – at a cost to the economy of £1.2bn.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of employers believed that unauthorised absence could be linked to Mondays and Fridays and almost two-thirds (64%) thought staff may be taking unauthorised extensions to holidays. Forty per cent considered special events, like the forthcoming World Cup, were a likely cause of unwarranted absence.

A yawning gap of almost nine days still remains between the best and worst performing organisations – and if the worst could raise their performance to the best, the overall cost of absence would fall by £5.4bn.

The cost of absence, which includes covering salaries of absent staff, paying overtime and providing temporary cover, rose to £531 per employee in 2005 compared with £495 in last year’s survey.

John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said: “The huge cost of absence to the economy shows why so many CEOs declare that their people are their most important asset. Hard work by companies to manage absence is clearly paying off, with overall absence coming down. But so much more can still be done.

“Employers live in the real world and recognise that the majority of absence is due to genuine, minor illnesses. Nobody wants staff to drag themselves into work when they are genuinely ill. But there is clearly concern that a culture of absenteeism still exists in some workplaces and this must change.”

There is still a marked difference in rates of absence between large and small organisations. Larger ones, employing more than 5,000 staff, averaged 7.4 days’ absence per employee, whereas smaller ones with fewer than 50 employees averaged just 4.2 days.

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