The total number of days absence has fallen from 137.3 million in 2016 to 131.2 million in 2017 equating to a drop from 4.4 days absence per employee per year to 4.1 days.
The primary reported reason for sickness absence remains minor illnesses - coughs, colds and the like - and that was true through all age groups. Not surprisingly, however, the next biggest cause of absence - musculoskeletal disorders - was more common in older age groups. An increase in the proportion of workers aged 25 to 34 who attribute their absence to mental health conditions was also identified.
But, if overall absence rates are dropping, does that mean the workforce as a whole is healthier? The CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work survey was published in May 2018 and showed an increase in the average number of days absence from 6.3 to 6.6 per employee per year. Its figures were based on a survey which this year had 1,021 replies referencing 4.6 million employees. However, despite the differences in the average rate between the CIPD and the ONS surveys, the CIPD survey also identified an overall slight downward trend in absence rates over the longer term.
Despite that, a deeper analysis of what is happening in workplaces suggests that the figures may be misleading. How can that be? Well a growth in both presenteeism (turning up at work when you are ill) and leavism (working during allocated time off such as annual leave) was identified in the CIPD survey with a significant majority of those who responded to the survey reporting it taking place at their workplace.
There is also the difference between absence rates in the public and private sector. The ONS figures show the sickness absence rate in the private sector is 1.7 per cent compared to 2.6 per cent in the public sector. This may be well be influenced not just by how healthy employees are but instead the fact that public sector employees are more likely to get paid at a higher rate and for a longer period while absent.
Given the impact presenteeism is known to have on productivity, the figures on absenteeism may not give as much cause for optimism as it might first seem. Absence rates may be at an all time low but that does not mean employee ill health is too. The problem of ill health within the workplace may be a changing picture but it is not necessarily an improving one. Simply reducing the number of days absence per employee is, unfortunately, not a complete answer - ensuring genuine improvements in the health and wellbeing of employees is the next big challenge for businesses.
Our next Essential Employment Law seminar will be running in our Edinburgh and Glasgow offices on 9 and 10 October respectively, and our employment law team will be looking at how businesses can effectively manage absence and deal with issues such as presenteeism and leavism while minimising the risk of claims. In addition, our guest speaker, Simon Moore, of Mercer Marsh Benefits, will look at the importance of a robust Health & Wellbeing strategy, as well as strategies for supporting absence management.
You can book your place here.