11 October 2012

New 2012 absence findings mask deeper problems in the workplace

The CIPD has just published the results of its 2012 Absence Management survey (in conjunction with Simplyhealth) and August saw the publication of the annual Aviva Absence report. 

As an occupational health physician, I hope this summary of both surveys will help you absorb the key trends in sickness absence and the impact they are having in the workplace.

The CIPD analysed responses from 667 employers in July and Aviva polled 1,000 British adult employees and 500 employers in June.

The headline CIPD finding was that absence levels dropped by nearly a day in 2012 compared to 2011. Data showed that the average number of sick days across all sectors fell from 7.7 days in 2011 to 6.8 this year.

As always, there are differences in the public and private sectors. Sick leave in the public sector dropped to its lowest level for 10 years as employees took 7.9 days off ill compared to 9.1 in 2011. Absence also fell to 5.7 days in the private sector, down from 7.1 the year before.

While the overall trend shows decreased absence levels, employers are reporting much higher incidences of their staff coming in to work whilst sick, also known as ‘presenteeism’. A third of CIPD respondents report an increase in staff working through illness (particularly in organisations expecting to make redundancies in the next 6 months) - no doubt caused by fears of job security in these uncertain economic times. 

However, while the continuing fall in absence figures is positive, the CIPD is concerned that “they may mask deeper problems in the workplace” according to CIPD research advisor Dr Jill Miller. Commenting on the findings, Dr Miller urged employers to examine whether lower absence levels are as a result of more effective absence management or if they reflect the negative impact of presenteeism.

As it did last year, stress remains the top reason for workers to take sick leave. 40% of employers reported a rise in stress-related absences but only 10% of employers felt that the problem had decreased. Yet, despite the growing problem of stress, almost a third of employers said they were not doing anything to reduce it. 

Looking at the main causes of stress at-work, the CIPD survey revealed that workload is an increasing problem, with 57% of organisations listing it in the top three most common causes, compared to 48% in 2011. Employers also listed considerable organisational change/restructuring (31%) and management style (36%) as top causes for stress, suggesting that employers could be doing more to reduce stress in the workplace.

Of additional concern is that the percentage of employers reporting mental health problems among employees, such as anxiety and depression, has more than doubled from 21% in 2009 to 44% 2012.

The main findings of the Aviva Absence Survey focus on the impacts of absence on the workforce. 45% of employers polled believe long term sickness absence is a big issue for their business and 40% say colleagues have to pick up the work of absent employees. 27% say productivity falls during absence, 21% say service standards suffer and nearly a quarter (22%) believe it impacts the business financially. Furthermore, the findings reveal a kind of absence ‘knock on effect’ as 17% of employers report seeing other members of staff go off sick when their colleagues are off long-term. 

The Aviva report reveals that sickness absence is a significant worry for employees too. Half the employees taking part in the research state that their key concern, behind their recovery (61%), is making ends meet if they were absent from work
As always, the facts are really only helpful if we can use them to reflect on our own experiences and to develop strategies for trying to improve things. Helping managers to recognise the signs of stress at work and then supporting both manager and employee with the situation can be very effective in reducing sickness absence. A temporary reduction in workload or flexibility with working hours can often support someone as they try to cope with a stressful situation, whatever the cause. Surveys have regularly shown that companies who allow flexibility within the workplace are rewarded with increased employee commitment and loyalty.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss a particular problem in more detail, please do not hesitate to contact me on 0117 906 4227 or rick@taylormohrs.co.uk