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Sickness absence continues on downward trend according to EEF/Westfield Health survey

04 May 2011

Sickness absence is continuing on a downward trend amongst UK employees, according to a major survey of sickness absence released by the Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF), and Westfield Health, one of the UK’s leading health insurance providers. The EEF/Westfield Health 2011 Sickness Absence Survey shows that from 2007 to 2010 there has been a steady fall in sickness absence, with the average employee taking 5.0 days sickness in 2010 compared to 6.7 days in 2007.

Significantly, an all time high of 45% of employees took no days off through sickness in 2010. Whilst recessionary effects may have played a part, this trend began before the recession with year on year improvements over the last five years.

The survey shows a clear correlation between those companies with strategies in place to train managers in sickness absence and tougher absence targets, with falling absence rates. More than two thirds are now achieving their targets compared to half in 2007 whilst those companies who trained their managers are one third more likely to reduce their sickness absence. Professor Sayeed Khan, EEF Chief Medical Adviser, says:

“The continued downward trend in sickness absence is welcome recognition of efforts by companies and government to get people back to work. In particular, it is striking that the companies who have proactively contacted their GPs to discuss adjusting people’s working arrangements have seen the highest level of response.

“It is also clear that doing the basics such as training line managers and GPs in managing sickness absence pays dividends. If we are to see the trend continuing to improve and the economic benefit to the UK economy this brings, it is vital that government continues to fund the training of GPs in health and work issues.”

Jill Davies, Chief Executive of Westfield Health, said: “The workforce is an employer’s most valuable asset and the falling sickness absence rates show that the right steps are being taken to continue this positive trend – but there is still plenty to be done.

“As a health insurance provider, we were particularly encouraged to see that companies are using some form of health insurance scheme to tackle absence rates. We envisage this trend continuing as providers develop benefits which complement the NHS in areas where provision is limited or unavailable, while also offering highly relevant health plans for businesses to negate the impact of sickness absence.”

The survey also shows the first results of the impact on sickness absence of the introduction of the ‘fit note’ where the results were mixed. On a positive note, 20% of companies said the introduction had helped them reduce absence and 28% said it has aided return to work discussions. The number of companies reporting the GP as a barrier to rehabilitation also fell significantly, down from 39% in 2007 to 26% in 2010.

However, significant concerns remain that employees were being signed off unnecessarily and further action is needed if the benefits are to be realised. Only 17% of companies said that it has enabled adjustments to be made so that employees could return more quickly. As such, EEF is urging the government to step up efforts to embed a culture of rehabilitation and reducing sickness absence amongst employers, employees and the medical profession. EEF will also be providing support to companies to help them work more effectively with their local GPs.

Whilst barriers to rehabilitation have continued to fall, a significant number of employers are paying for private medical treatment. 39% of companies indicated that at least one member of staff had received treatment either paid for directly or through the company (24%), whilst 15% received treatment through a medical insurance scheme.

EEF believes increased private provision may prove a rising trend as the UK comes out of recession, and if health service reforms create public uncertainly about the speed of access to NHS services. At present treatments such as physiotherapy may be taxed as benefits in kind, particularly if it treats a condition not caused by work and this is a major disincentive to their provision. Government needs to take a more positive approach in this area and send an important signal to employers about the importance of their role in providing for rehabilitation.

Other findings include:

· The research reveals the top causes of short-term sickness absence as: ‘minor illness’, ‘back pain and other joint / muscular problems; the same as for the past three years.
· For cases of long-term sickness absence, the main causes are surgery or medical investigations and tests, back problems, cancer and mental ill health, excluding stress; the same as for the past three years.
· The report highlights a continued decrease in stress and back pain as a cause of long-term sickness absence. This is now a long-term trend, which contradicts the public perception and highlights better attempts by employers to address the issues.
· 38% of companies saw a decrease in short-term sickness absence in 2009, slightly down from 41% in 2009. However, the proportion of companies reporting an increase has now steadily declined from 25% in 2007 to 15% in 2010.
· Although more companies report rising long-term absence, the overall trend remains positive with the number of companies reporting an increase in long-term absence declining from 39% in 2007 to 32% in 2010.

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