Stress the most common cause of sickness absence

Employers have reported stress as the most common cause of long-term sickness absence, according to research published today.

The joint survey, by the CIPD and healthcare provider Simplyhealth, found that more than one-third (35%) of employers reported stress as the main reason for long-term sickness absence in the past 12 months.

The survey also revealed that 73% of manual and 79% of non-manual public sector employers rated stress as a top-five common cause of absence. This compares to an average across all sectors of 51% and 63% respectively.

The research also shows that public sector employers have reported higher sickness absence levels over the past year than their private sector counterparts, with public sector workers taking an average of three days’ more sick leave than those in the private sector.

The findings reiterate previous data highlighting greater sickness in the public sector, and CIPD adviser Dr Jill Miller said that there are numerous reasons why public sector workers might be more likely to become ill – particularly through stress or anxiety.

She said: “Compared to the private sector, more public sector employees are in challenging, public-facing roles such as social work, policing, teaching and nursing where they often have to deal with people in difficult and emotionally charged situations, putting pressure on their time and resilience.”

However, Miller also warned that employers need to watch out for “presenteeism”, when employees turn up for work when they are ill.

She said: “Presenteeism is interesting, particularly in the public sector. Sometimes workers have a loyalty to the service users, or don’t want to let their teams or managers down. But presenteeism needs to be carefully managed. We don’t want to make colleagues ill or for them to come in while unwell and perform poorly.”

Miller suggested stress-related illness and the resulting presenteeism might be a particular problem for the public sector, particularly as workers feel pressure due to forthcoming organisational changes, but also attempt to protect themselves from job cuts by avoiding sickness absence.

“Organisational change and restructuring is cited more commonly by public sector employers than those in other sectors as a major cause of stress, which will only increase in the near future as a consequence of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review. Organisations planning to make cuts reported more sickness and mental health issues,” she said. “Line managers and HR need to be aware of presenteeism and monitor stress and anxiety, and managers themselves need help with their own health and wellbeing.”

However, Miller added that employers and line managers should not allow themselves to lose focus on cases where employees might be claiming they are sick when they are fit for work, saying: “It’s important to have a balance between wellbeing and promoting good health, and a focus on employees who might be taking advantage of the sick pay system.”

Read our XpertHR model policy and procedure on dealing with stress at work.

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