A new report into sickness absence shows that an average of 5.1 days per employee were lost to sickness in the UK in 2014, down from 4.8 in 2013.
The survey of 83,000 employees from across the UK was published by EEF, The manufacturers’ organisation, and Jelf Employee Benefits, and says that employers are struggling to address mental health issues in the workplace amidst growing concern at long-term absence trends.
The North West was worst affected with an average of 6.2 days per employee to sickness last year. Whilst at the other end of the scale the West Midlands lost 4.2 days, the North East 4.3 days and East of England 4.4 days on average.
The survey shows that the level of absence in the East of England has remained steady year-on-year at 2%, below the national average of 2.2%.
However, overall sickness rates have started to creep up, suggestions that the days of “presenteeism” – a trend particularly noticed around the time of the recession – are over.
Jim Davison, EEF regional director for the East of England, said: “While overall levels remain low, there continues to be a marked difference between short and long-term absence, which is creeping upwards.
“Without a renewed effort to tackle the root causes it will continue to act as a drag on the economy and a brake on efforts to improve productivity and boost growth.
“Of particular concern is the gradual increase in stress and mental health-related problems over the last 5 years, which GPs and employers are struggling to deal with.
“As a society we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy. While employers and GPs appear able to manage other causes of absence they must now be given the tools to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way.”
Two fifths of companies saw an increase in long-term absence last year, the largest increase in five years. While back pain and musculoskeletal disorders remain the biggest cause of long-term absence (34%), stress and mental health disorders are ranked as the most difficult to make workplace adjustments for (32%).
Furthermore, a third of employers said that they do not have a system in place for managing mental health-related long-term absence.
The survey also shows that employers’ approach to managing absence remains mixed. The number of companies setting absence targets is increasing (a third have no target compared to two fifths last year) and two fifths can make workplace adjustments or provide training to manage long-term absence.
However, almost three quarters of companies don’t measure the cost of sickness absence, while 70% don’t measure the return on their investment for the health and well-being benefits they offer.
According to EEF, the new Fit for Work service will be critical in reducing long-term absence, especially musculoskeletal disorders and mental health issues, and the report contains a number of recommendations on how to make the service succeed.
Professor Sayeed Khan, EEF’s chief medical adviser commented: “While overall absence levels remain low, there continues to be a marked difference between short and long-term absence which is creeping up.
“Without a renewed effort to tackle its root causes it will continue to act as a drag on the economy and efforts to improve productivity and boost growth.”
Professor Khan added that the gradual increase in stress and mental health-related problems over the last five years was a particular concern.
“As a society we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy,” he added.
Businesses interested in finding out more about the support available to help them with workplace issues, including sickness absence, should visit www.eef.org.uk/business-support.