What’s behind the latest sickness absence rates?

Have we conquered absence?

With sickness absence levels falling to record an average low level of 4.1 days per year per colleague (ONS), have we conquered absence?

In 2017, the sickness absence rate stood at 1.7% for the private sector and 2.6% for the public sector.

Many believe rates may have decreased due to:

  • Improvements in healthy life expectancy
  • Private sector colleagues being less likely to be paid for a spell of sickness
  • An increase in presenteeism, generally understood to mean coming into work despite illness, injury/anxiety
  • Effective absence management strategies.

Certainly, these aspects have played a part, but the factors behind reduced absence may mask a hidden time bomb of future absence issues.

Presenteeism often results in reduced productivity and working long hours than necessary. It can also exacerbate mental health problems. The cost of mental health problems in the UK workforce was £34.9 billion in 2017 with presenteeism costing £21.2 billion. Further research found that 86% of employers having observed staff coming into work while ill in the last year.

However, presenteeism reduces productivity, increases employee stress and turnover and reduces engagement and morale. This is backed by statistics showing an increase in the number of younger workers (aged 25 to 34) citing mental health conditions as the reason for absence, up from 7.2% in 2009 to 9.6%.

And with increased life expectancy come chronic diseases and musculoskeletal problems, which can account for a significant amount of long-term sickness and absence and presenteeism; this is backed by statistics showing older workers were more likely to attribute absence to musculoskeletal problems, such as back and joint pain, accounting for sickness absence for 20.8% of 50 to 64 year olds.

Labour productivity remains noticeably below the long-term trend observed before 2008 when productivity growth averaged nearly 2% per annum, and suggests the “productivity puzzle” remains unsolved or, at least, be related to an increase in presenteeism.

Organisations need to understand the scale of workplace presenteeism and take a holistic approach to health & wellbeing, understanding the visible and “invisible” causes of ill-health and loss of wellbeing in the workplace and its effects on productivity.

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