EEF/Westfield Health research: Sickness absence levels fall

The level of sickness absence has fallen from an average of 6.7 days in 2007 to five days in 2010, according to a survey from the EEF and Westfield Health.

The EEF/Westfield Health 2011 Sickness Absence Survey shows a direct correlation between the organisations with strategies in place to train managers in sickness absence and tougher absence targets, with falling absence rates.

More than two-thirds are now achieving their targets compared to half in 2007, while those organisations that train their managers are one-third more likely to reduce their sickness absence levels.

The survey found that 38% of respondents saw a decrease in short-term sickness absence in 2010, slightly down from 41% in 2009. However, the proportion of organisations reporting an increase has now steadily declined from 25% in 2007 to 15% in 2010.

Although more employers report rising long-term absence, the overall trend remains positive with the number of organisations reporting an increase in long-term absence declining from 39% in 2007 to 32% in 2010.

The survey also shows the first results of the impact on sickness absence of the introduction of the fit note. One-fifth (20%) of respondents said the introduction had helped them reduce absence and 28% said it has aided return-to-work discussions.

Only 17% of organisations said that the fit note has enabled adjustments to be made so that employees could return to work more quickly. As such, EEF is urging the government to step up efforts to embed a culture of rehabilitation and reduce sickness absence amongst employers, employees and the medical profession.

A significant number of employers are paying for private medical treatment: 39% of respondents indicated that at least one member of staff had received treatment either paid for directly or through the organisation (24%), while 15% received treatment through a medical insurance scheme.

Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at EEF, said: “The continued downward trend in sickness absence is welcome recognition of efforts by organisations and government to get people back to work.

“In particular, it is striking that the organisations who have proactively contacted their GPs to discuss adjusting people’s working arrangements have seen the highest level of response.

“It is also clear that doing the basics such as training line managers and GPs in managing sickness absence pays dividends. If we are to see the trend continuing to improve and the economic benefit to the UK economy this brings, it is vital that government continues to fund the training of GPs in health and work issues.”

Jill Davies, chief executive of Westfield Health, said: “The workforce is an employer’s most valuable asset and the falling sickness absence rates show that the right steps are being taken to continue this positive trend, but there is still plenty to be done.

“As a health insurance provider, we were particularly encouraged to see that organisations are using some form of health insurance scheme to tackle absence rates.

“We envisage this trend continuing as providers develop benefits which complement the NHS in areas where provision is limited or unavailable, while also offering highly relevant health plans for businesses to negate the impact of sickness absence.”

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