Sicknote epidemic hits UK


Levels of absenteeism are rising in the UK and the problem is particularly acute in the public and voluntary sectors.

Overall absence rates in 2002 were 4.12 per cent (or nine days per employee per year) - up from 2.9 per cent in 2001. In the in the public and voluntary sectors, the rate has more that doubled from 2.97 per cent in 2001 to 7.86 per cent in 2002.

But many managers also believe that flexible working could stop rising employee absence, according to figures released on January 20 by The Work Foundation. Allowing workers the time off to deal with personal emotional and family issues such as stress and childcare, would stop many calling in sick, managers say.

The Work Foundation survey of 400 personnel specialists comes as the government struggles to gain employer buy-in for new family friendly employment rights, coming into force in April. The new figures reverse the previous downward trend and are the highest since 1996 when The Work Foundation began monitoring absence.

The top five reasons given by employees for time off are colds/flu (93 per cent), food poisoning/stomach upsets (77 per cent), headaches/migraines (64 per cent), stress/emotional/personal problems (54 per cent) and back problems (47 per cent).

By contrast, managers believe the most common reasons for absence are cold/flu (59 per cent), stress/emotional/personal problems (58 per cent), Monday morning blues/extending the weekend (39 per cent), sickness of other family member/ childcare problems (36 per cent), the concept of taking sick leave entitlement 31 per cent), and low morale/boring job (31 per cent).

Over half of the responding organizations offer flexible working. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of these believe that flexible working hours help to reduce absence, as do flexible annual leave (49 per cent) and occasional homeworking (48 per cent).

Traditionally the groups most at risk of absence are male manual workers and women with caring responsibilities. While the figures suggest that companies are having some success in managing manual worker absence, the reverse is true of female absence, which seemed to increase slightly in 2002.

According to Stephen Bevan, The Work Foundation’s deputy director of research: “Enhanced maternity and paternity rights, including the new right for parents to ask for family friendly working practices – due to take effect in April, should help reduce the absence rate of women employees. Until then, organizations may find that flexible work practices address the ‘ability to attend factor’ and help people manage their responsibilities more effectively.”

The survey also found that the financial impact of absence is calculated in less than half (43 per cent) of organizations surveyed – a decrease of 11 per cent since 1996. The main reason given is that it is too time-consuming (33 per cent). Around a quarter do not have a computerized personnel system (29 per cent) or accurate attendance records (23 per cent).

Employers believe that the most effective methods for maximizing attendance are return to work interviews (77 per cent), motivation (59 per cent), accurate monitoring (54 per cent) and training of line managers (51 per cent). A written absence policy is rated as important by 44 per cent of respondent organizations.