Given the sluggish nature of the economy, we need to pull on every possible lever to try to promote growth. One of the key aspects is ensuring that our workforce is fit and healthy, that people are in work and their skills are being fully utilised.
For this reason, the issue of sickness absence is one that government, employers and other stakeholders have put considerable effort into tackling over the past decade. Not only is it lost productivity for companies when people are off work, especially for long periods, but it is a large dead cost to the economy. All the evidence suggests that, the longer people are off work, the more likely they are to drop out of the workforce, with all the costs to individuals and society this brings.
Considerable efforts to tackle this issue have led to the training of some GPs in occupational health, together with the introduction of the “fit note” two years ago which shows what people are able to do, rather than what they can’t do. Companies have also become far better at adopting absence targets, together with strategies to manage absence and train managers.
This has produced significant gains in tackling short-term absence. The latest EEF/Westfield Health survey has shown a continued year-on-year decline in short-term absence over the past five years, with one third of companies seeing a decrease in 2011. In addition, the number of employees having no sickness absence increased to 51% in 2011, up from 46% in 2010.
But despite these efforts the overall sickness absence rate has now flattened off and remained unchanged from 2010, while the average number of working days lost to absence has shown a marginal increase from 5 days per employee to 5.1 days.
Of greater concern is the divergence between short- and long-term absences. Almost 40% of companies saw an increase in long-term absence in 2011, a rise of 5% on 2010 alone. This was mainly down to a jump in absence owing to stress, anxiety and depression.
In addition, the issue of presenteeism – attending work while sick – is now being discussed significantly. Some 55% of companies expressed concerns about this, in particular on the impact on long-term health, short-term illness and unmotivated employees. However, only 5% of companies monitor the cost of presenteeism.
While the reasons may be many and complex for the increase in long-term absence, it appears that the efforts to date have now been exhausted and that the government needs to reinvigorate its policies.
The EEF is urging the government to implement the recommendations of the Frost/Black review of work and well-being, including an electronic fit note to help embed it as part of the back-to-work culture. There should also be more training of all doctors in occupational health as, to date, only 3,500 out of a UK total of 40,000 have been trained.
Finally, there should be tax breaks for companies that invest in rehabilitation as the review recommended. As well as helping to get people back to work more quickly, such investment by companies would also take pressure off the NHS capacity which is still seen as a barrier by almost one third of companies.
At the same time companies should get involved and make the fit note work for them. All the evidence shows that, the more companies put into the fit note, the more they get out of it.
Either way, the gains made to date have been considerable but a fresh approach from government, companies and other bodies is now needed.