Survey highlights fall in absence rate

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Absences from work due to sickness are continuing to fall, according to a new survey by Sheffield-based health insurance provider Westfield Health and the manufacturers’ organisation, the EEF.

Employees took 5.0 days off due to sickness, on average, last year, compared to 6.7 days in 2007, and 45 per cent of employees took no days off through sickness in 2010.

Westfield Health chief executive, Jill Davies, 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 EEF says the survey showed a clear correlation between falling absence rates and companies that set tougher absence targets and had strategies in place to train managers to deal with absences due to sickness.

It adds that although the recession may have helped to reduce absences due to sickness, the downward trend began before the recession hit. One in five companies surveyed said absences had reduced with the help of the switch from sick notes to ‘fit’ notes, specifying what an employee was able to do, despite their illness. Almost three out of 10 said it had assisted with return-to-work discussions.

The number of companies who said GPs were a barrier to the rehabilitation of sick employees fell from 39 per cent in 2007 to 26 per cent in 2010, although there were still significant concerns that employees were being signed off unnecessarily

EEF chief medical adviser, Professor Sayeed Khan, said it was clear that training line managers and GPs to manage sickness absences paid 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,” said Prof Khan.

The 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.

It adds that whilst barriers to rehabilitation have continued to fall, a significant number of employers are paying for private medical treatment. Almost two out of five companies said at least one member of staff had received treatment either paid for directly or through the company, whilst 15 per cent received treatment through a medical insurance scheme.

The EEF believes the incidence of private provision may increase as the UK comes out of recession, and if health service reforms create public uncertainly about the speed of access to NHS services.

It says the taxation of the provision of some treatments as benefits in kind, particularly if the condition was not caused by work, is a disincentive to making use of them to get people back to work.