Do more to combat absence

2003

Absence from work has attracted the attention of none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hardly surprising as many estimate that it costs British organisations £11 billion every year or 9 per cent of annual salary costs of larger employers.

Now a new report by The Work Foundation claims that much more could be done to manage absence, starting with the proper recording of absence so that patterns can be investigated.

Although the headline figures for absence have remained virtually unchanged, a quiet revolution has been taking place. The UK average has just risen, for the first time in six years, to 7 days per worker. Yet its causes and management have undergone radical change.

"Absence has grown from an HR issue to a business problem," said Stephen Bevan, deputy director of research at The Work Foundation, who wrote the report. "While headline figures have not changed, the renewed focus on the bottom line has highlighted the real cost of absence to UK organisations."

According to The Work Foundation, while 89 per cent of absences are short term, long term episodes account for 56 per cent of days lost and up to 70 per cent of costs. Most disturbingly, every week approximately 3,000 people move from long-term sickness to ongoing incapacity benefit. Of the 2.7 million people now receiving incapacity benefit, only 30 people, just over one per cent, rejoin the workforce each week.

While nearly two in five people do not take any absence each year, some jobs and sectors are significantly more prone. Managers are less than half as likely as manual workers (3.95 vs 1.63 per cent) and those in the public/voluntary sector are five times more likely than IT to be off sick (7.86 vs 1.57 per cent).

The Work Foundation’s research mirrors figures released by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in July that found that public sector workers take half as many days sick again than their private sector counterparts. But the CIPD also found that 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.

Yet despite the scale of the problem, The Work Foundation believes that much more could be done to minimise levels, starting with the proper recording of absence so that levels and patterns can be investigated. For example, some 57 per cent of employers do not cost absence, which suggests a lack of data or insight.

"Managers in the UK have ignored the issue for too long; increased competitive pressures and more explicit legislation are forcing real focus," said Stephen Bevan. "The good news is that sensible management techniques can make an immediate and positive impact."

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