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June 30, 2010

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Sickness absence is not inevitable says EEF

Almost half of employees in the manufacturing sector took no absence in 2009, a members’ survey by EEF suggests. But the organisation doesn’t believe this should be seen as evidence of more people turning up to work when ill.

The annual sickness absence survey by EEF and financial-protection provider Unum shows that 44 per cent of employees took no sick leave last year – a rise of 4 per cent on 2007 – despite the outbreak of swine flu.

The survey also shows that there has been a steady fall in sickness absence over the last three years, with the average employee taking 5.6 days sickness in 2009 compared with 6.8 days in 2007. This amounts to a gain for employers of, on average, one extra day of work per employee during 2009.

Forty-one per cent of companies saw a decrease in short-term sickness absence last year – a climb of 9 per cent from 2008 – while almost a third of companies (32 per cent) experienced a decrease in long-term sickness absence over the past two years – up from 26 per cent on the previous survey.

Although the report acknowledges that the recession and job uncertainty could have dissuaded employees from taking days off sick, it warns that high attendance should not be confused with presenteeism, which, it believes, is “inadvertently becoming synonymous with ‘sickness’ presenteeism”.

The report concludes: “We feel that adopting an enquiring, supportive approach to poor performance at work, which can include poor attendance, will help to tease out those with an acute, or chronic illness. Equally, it will help identify those who are unmotivated, or who lack necessary skills. We think we have highlighted that sickness absence isn’t inevitable; loyalty and reliability need to be recognised and celebrated.”

In terms of how companies are measuring absence, the survey reveals more companies (29 per cent) are looking at absence disruption via the Bradford Factor method. The approach, which the report describes as “a very useful measure to identify people with attendance problems”, is not without its challenges; the EEF and Unum point out that it can be perceived by employees as a disciplinary tool rather than a resource to identify people who may need assistance in relation to their performance and attendance.

Interestingly, the survey also highlights a significant fall in stress as a cause of long-term sickness absence – a trend that the report speculates could be down to survey respondents gradually getting to grips with the issue, or to the fact that employees would rather have another diagnosis than stress.

The positive role that line managers can have in helping to address the health and well-being of their staff is indicated by the fact that half of companies reported a fall in short-term sickness absence when managers were trained, compared with 36 per cent reporting a decrease when no training had taken place.

When it comes to the role and service provided by occupational health, respondents’ overall satisfaction is surprisingly high, with only 5 per cent reporting dissatisfaction and 71 per cent stating that they are satisfied, or very satisfied.

The proportion of employees reporting that they have no ‘barriers’ to rehabilitation has gone up significantly – from 13 per cent in the last two years to 20 per cent in this year’s survey. The number of employers reporting resistance to rehabilitation from GPs and employees is also on the decline – marking what the report calls “a gradual cultural shift in attitude to sickness absence in employers, employees and GPs”.

It nevertheless advocates mandatory GP training on health and work to quicken the pace of this shift in attitude.

Concern about the NHS’ capacity to help people back to work remains an issue however. Only 9 per cent of respondents said NHS treatment is quick enough in dealing with employees, and 44 per cent of employers have felt it necessary to pay for private treatment, or have used private medical insurance instead of relying on the NHS.

Commenting on how the new fit-note system might help address this problem, chief medical officer at Unum, Professor Michael O’Donnell, said: “The fit note plays a key role in absence management, as it can help reduce the duration of absence for people recovering from treatments or operations. Doctors may previously have been over-cautious in advising return to work when the only option they had was to declare full fitness. With the fit note, doctors can and should advise a graduated return to work, where possible.”

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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13 years ago

We use the Bradford points system and it helped us to reuce absenteeism from 5% to under 1% in 1 year. The trick is to use this system as a tool to monitor Absenteeism but also to congratulate good attendance.

13 years ago

It would be very interesting to find some research that showed the benefits of ‘sickness prevention’ by ensuring that initial sufferers from an easily spread illness do NOT attend work to spread it around. The concept was adopted, successfully we were told, during the recent flu scare and would be the only defence against a virulent epidemic.
Just another example of the bias towards looking at the ‘costs’ of absence from ill health without considering the benefits of using absence to reduce cost6.