Stress now top cause of long-term sickness absence

The impact of increasing job insecurity and mounting workloads on UK workers has been underlined in a report published today that identified stress as the number one cause of long-term employee absence.

The joint Absence Management survey, released today by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and corporate healthcare provider Simply Health, found that stress is the most common cause of long-term sickness leave for both manual and non-manual employees – the first time this has been the case in the 12 years the report has been published.

The survey, based on 592 online questionnaires from employers across all sectors, revealed that the proportion of organisations reporting stress as the most common cause of absence for non-manual workers has risen to one-third (33%) this year from a quarter (24%) last year.

For manual workers, stress, which affects just over one-fifth (21%) of cases is now level with acute medical conditions and has overtaken musculoskeletal problems to become the top cause of long-term absence, which is classified as sick leave lasting four weeks or more.

A link between job security and mental health problems was also highlighted in the report, with those employers planning to make redundancies in the next six months significantly more likely to report an increase in mental health problems among their staff (51%, compared with 32% among those that are not planning redundancies).

Almost half (48%) of respondents said an increased volume of work was a cause of stress-related absence in their organisation.

According to Dr Jill Miller, adviser at the CIPD, line managers have a crucial role to play in tackling this growing problem: “It’s a difficult time for people at the moment. At work there are pay freezes and job uncertainty, while at home there are increased bills.

“Employers need to be approachable and create a culture where they are open about the situation and are available to answer any questions employees may have. Early intervention is key when dealing with stress-related health problems and line managers are well-placed to spot the early warning signs that employees are stressed.

“But to do this they need to be supported by HR, so they are confident in holding good quality conversations and taking steps like reducing workloads and offering flexible working,” she added.

According to Dr Miller, a high level of organisational change is also a major factor in the cause of stress. This is particularly prevalent in the public sector, where 50% of respondents reported an increase stress-related absence.

For more information on managing sickness absence, see XpertHR’s good practice guide on the subject.

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