Although HR professionals consider absence management the number one issue that they face today, more than half of Britain's employers do not know how much absence is costing their business while one in five do not even know their annual absence rates.
With absence estimated to cost the UK economy some £12.2 billion annually – or almost nearly £500 per employee – research by health provider FirstAssist has underlined the importance of managing and monitoring absence to rein in its escalating cost to business.
According to the FirstAssist survey, six out of10 HR professionals consider absence management the number one issue that they face today, followed by retention, stress management, recruitment and performance management.
Yet even though the majority of those surveyed also think that absence will remain the top issue for the next three years, an astonishing 55 per cent say that they do not know how much absence is costing their business, with a further 12.5% admitting that their absence costs are too high.
Those surveyed reported absence rates of 4 to 5% per annum, which is slightly over the average of 4.0% reported in figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
Many confirmed that they are losing millions a year as a result of absence, but the survey suggests a real failure to invest in absence management solutions.
Typical of this failure is the lack of attention paid to managing and monitoring stress in the workplace. Over a quarter of those surveyed do not monitor stress in their organisation, despite this being an increasing cause of absence.
Among the most common ways of managing stress were discussions with line managers, occupational health services, stress management covered in stress policies and stress management with sickness absence.
Four out of 10 companies claim to use return-to-work interviews to manage sickness absence. This supports research by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that return-to-work interviews are the most common way of controlling sickness absence.
Encouragingly, two-thirds of those surveyed provide Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which offers staff expert assistance such as counsellors and legal advice as and when they need it.
But this means that a third are either using alternatives, or, failing that, nothing at all.
The survey also shows that 14% of employers are thinking about providing something soon and that several provide both EAPs and a sickness absence programme.
Dr Les Smith, Group Medical Director for FirstAssist, urged more HR professionals to consider the benefits that both EAPs and a Sickness Absence programme can offer when they are used together.
. "Sickness absence management and EAPs work best together as part of a comprehensive HR programme," he said.
"Sickness absence solutions promote an early return to health and work, with staff benefiting from access to health care and occupational health professionals as well as a wealth of rehabilitation resources to speed up recovery. Businesses gain a healthy and productive workforce as well as promoting a positive work/life balance.
But as Tim Ablett, Chief Executive of FirstAssist pointed out, the survey suggests that many HR professionals still seem to be working in the dark when it comes to stress in the workplace, sickness absence levels and its financial impact.
"This is alarming and we urge businesses to look at ways of getting to the root cause of staff absence by creating a healthy working culture for employees.
"Businesses should be taking a proactive approach to managing sickness absence by monitoring stress and offering a support structure for staff."