Absence on the decline as threat of the axe grows


The economic downturn and fear of redundancy has contributed to a ten per cent fall in the UK’s average rate of employee absence over the past year. But public sector workers still take half as many days sick again than their private sector counterparts.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) annual Employee Absence survey of over HR 1,300 practitioners shows that three quarters of organisations believe that minor illnesses such as colds and flu are the most common causes of absence. Around three quarters of organisations cite minor illnesses as the main cause of absence compared with just over half last year.

Stress is still the most common cause of long-term sickness absence among non-manual workers. But despite the often greater job security and more generous pensions packages enjoyed by workers in the public sector, their stress levels are alarmingly high. Almost six out of ten public sector organisations cite stress as the leading cause of long-term sickness absence, more than double the number of the private sector.

The findings echo the CIPD's employee attitudes survey published in December 2002, which showed that public sector workers are more stressed than their private sector counterparts. This research showed that 38 per cent of NHS workers and 30 per cent of local government workers find their work either stressful or very stressful against a national average of 25 per cent.

Absence rates are fifty per cent higher among public sector employees - 10 and a half days per year as opposed to seven days in the private sector. And in contrast to the picture in the NHS and local government, absence levels in IT, consultancy, legal services and the media are barely more than half the national average.

This huge discrepancy is explained in part by the increase in job insecurity. A third of organisations say that it has increased during the past year, twice as many as those who say that job insecurity has decreased. Of those organisations who report an increase in job insecurity, almost half attribute the fall in absence to the threat of redundancy.

Top of the regional absence league are workers in the North-West of England, whose average of 10.4 days per year compares to 7.6 days in London.

According to Mike Emmott, CIPD Head of Employee Relations, "the biggest single influence on absence levels is management action. However, where employees feel more insecure this can also have an effect.

“Job insecurity can undermine morale and commitment and so push up absence rates. However, the threat of redundancy may also lead to a fall in sickness absence.

Despite the fact that fewer than half of HR practitioners monitor the cost of absence to their organisations, there is at least a growing understanding of the effectiveness of absence management policies.

Return-to-work interviews are the most effective for tool for managing short-term absence, according to Emmott, proving to be almost twice as effective as disciplinary procedures.

"Organisations can take some credit for reviewing their absence management policies and practices over the last couple of years and adopting more sophisticated approaches,” he said.