Absence from work in the UK has dropped to a record low, according to the latest workplace absence survey from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), yet the organisation believes the ‘sick-note’ culture is still prevalent.
The report, Fit for purpose — the first since 2011 and based on responses from more than 150 private and public-sector organisations — reveals that the average absence rate was 5.3 days per employee last year, down from 6.5 days in 2010.
Seeing absence rates fall from 8.1 to 6.9 days per employee, the public sector — which has attracted criticism in the past for its high absence rates — has closed the gap slightly on the private sector, where the rate dropped from 5.9 days per employee to 4.9. The overall fall in absence rates is believed to have saved employers around £3 billion.
The report suggests that more than £1.2bn a year could be saved if public-sector absence levels were brought in line with the private-sector average — on top of the £700m saved from the fall in the public sector since 2010.
While acknowledging such progress, the report highlights figures from the Office of National Statistics, which state that overall absences still cost the economy £14bn a year. The CBI argues that the old ‘sick-note’ culture is still widespread, estimating that one in eight sick days is taken for non-genuine reasons. Moreover, one in five employers believes employees take ‘sickies’ as an occasional perk.
The prevalence of the ‘sick-note’ culture is also evident in the failure of the fit note to bring about improvements in rehabilitation and return to work, the CBI suggests. Echoing the findings of a similar workplace-absence survey, issued last month by EEF — the manufacturers’ organisation, two-thirds of employers questioned by the CBI claim the fit-note system is not being used to its full potential.
A fifth of employers report the fit note has helped their rehabilitation policies, and the same proportion says fit notes contain constructive advice. One employer in ten is confident doctors are sufficiently trained to use the fit note differently from sick notes, while just one in 20 is convinced GPs have sufficient understanding of the workplace to make the most of fit notes.
Commenting on the fit note’s impact, CBI director of employment and skills Neil Carberry said: “It’s clear that [the fit note has] fallen short of expectations and, to date, is not being used much differently to the old sick-note system. Ministers need to listen carefully to concerns that doctors are not trained well enough to use the notes properly, with little understanding of the modern workplace.”
Speaking about the absence figures more generally, he added: “The record low shows employers are getting much better at tackling the root causes of absence. This is down to stronger staff engagement, initiatives to foster employee health, and better re-integration plans after longer-term sick leave.
“But there is no room for complacency. Clearly, when staff are sick, they should not be in work, but there’s a lot more employers can do to tackle absence at a time when growth is fragile.”
On the issue of the absence gap between the private and public sectors, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) said the reduction in days lost is not necessarily a good thing.
“If the survey shows employers are getting better at improving the health and well-being of their staff, that is good,” said a spokesperson. “But, if it shows that staff are now more fearful of losing their jobs, or having their pay cut, so are going in to work while ill, that is a problem — for employers and employees alike.
“In the civil service, more than 70,000 jobs have gone so far under this Government, and workloads for those that remain are rising. This leads to ill health and stress.”
The CBI/Pfizer Absence and Workplace Health Survey 2013 can be found at www.cbi.org.uk/media/2150120/cbi-pfizer_absence___workplace_health_2013.pdf
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