Sickness absence rates stall, despite employer and government efforts

 Progress in reducing sickness absence has stalled in the UK, despite a growing number of companies initiating return to work interviews, line manager training, setting stretching absence targets and providing employees with occupational health and wellness initiatives. The 2013 EEF/Westfield Health Sickness Absence survey, found that longer-term sickness absence is increasing (40 per cent) rather than decreasing (24 per cent) and that employers have lost faith the government’s flagship ‘fit note’ programme is getting people back to work.  The three most popular health and well-being employee benefits are health screening/health checks (56 per cent), access to counselling or employee assistance programmes (EAPs) (54 per cent) and subsidised private medical insurance (40 per cent).

According to the survey, sickness absence rates have plateaued at 2.2 per cent and 2.3 per cent for 2011 and 2012 respectively, having previously fallen from 3 per cent in 2007. The average number of days lost to absence has shown a minor increase from a low of 5.1 days in 2011 to 5.3 days in 2012. The survey also indicates increasingly negative attitudes about the Fit Note – one of the key initiatives tasked with addressing sickness absence is not helping get people back to work.

In this context, the manufacturers’ organisation EEF is becoming increasingly concerned that the ‘Fit Note’ is failing to deliver on its objectives and is calling for renewed government action to ensure that the advice provided by GPs helps facilitate more employees returning earlier to work.

Paul Shires, Executive Director at Westfield Health said: “The plateau shown in sickness absence levels reflects the clear need for government to invest more time and effort in helping employers manage the health and wellbeing of their staff.

“A robust healthcare infrastructure is vital in stimulating economic recovery and, as this survey shows, an increased focus on better evaluating and adapting the strategies already in place such as the ‘Fit Note’ is crucial.”

The UK’s largest business survey of sickness absence is the tenth national survey of EEF members, looking at their experience of sickness absence and rehabilitation and the third to be undertaken with Westfield Health, a UK not-for-profit health insurance provider.

By Sara Bean