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Absence down, but costs still rising

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Workplace absence has fallen to its lowest level for at least 14 years. But the annual cost to employers has risen by more than a billion pounds, according to a survey published today (Thursday) by the CBI and PPP healthcare. The number of working days lost fell by 16 million, from 192 million in 2000 to 176 million in 2001. That is 7.1 days per employee or 3.1 per cent of total working time, the lowest figures recorded since the survey began in 1987.

The annual absence and labour turnover survey shows the average cost of absence per employee rose to its highest level for five years. Projected across the whole workforce the total cost of absence to British business rose from £10.7 bn in 2000 to £11.8 bn in 2001.

Susan Anderson, CBI Director of Human Resources Policy, said: “Concerns about job security and better absence management led to a fall in days lost but firms say costs increased. They are under greater competitive pressures and, with less slack in their operations, providing cover is likely to mean extra spending on overtime or temps. This survey shows the key to reducing absence is senior management involvement. But, while companies can do more, business wants a quick and efficient health service to help people get back to work. It will be looking for results from the £3 billion extra tax burden imposed on it in last week’s budget.”

Since 1991, average absence has fallen by two days. Average absence levels in 2001 were 25 per cent lower than those recorded ten years ago. But there were substantial differences between sectors, regions and types of job.

In the public sector an average 10.1 days were lost, compared with an average 6.7 in the private sector. Until 1998, when the difference between the two sectors was down to 2.5 days, the gap had appeared to be narrowing. But for the last three years the gap has widened again, reaching 3.4 days per employee in this survey.

Absence rates among non-manual employees fell for the fourth year in a row. In 2001 the average was 5.5 days per employee compared with 6.3 in 2000. Rates for manual workers continued to be higher, 8.8 days per employee in 2001 compared with 9.5 in 2000.

The link between company size and absence levels has strengthened. Organisations employing less than 50 lost an average 4.5 days per employee, 1.4 days less than last year. In firms employing over 5000 the average is 9.6, a slight increase on the previous year.

This survey has consistently shown no lasting association between absence and region. In this survey Yorkshire and Humberside had the worst record for manual employees and Northern Ireland for non-manual. In the last survey it was Northern Ireland for manual and the South West for non-manual. The gap between regions is also narrowing.

Employers believe most absence is for genuine reasons but there are significant opportunities to reduce non-sickness absence, especially among manual workers. Employers say general sickness is the main cause of absence for all workers. For manual employees, this is followed by employees seeing paid sickness as an entitlement, and personal problems. For non-manual employees, home and family responsibilities were the second main reason for absence followed by personal problems.

Absence rates were lowest in organisations where senior managers take responsibility for managing absence. These organisations lose, on average, five days per employee per year, compared with 7.6 where it is left to line managers. Return-to-work interviews were the most effective absence management tool, followed by disciplinary measures.

Dudley Lusted, PPP healthcare’s Director of Corporate Healthcare Development, said: “With sickness absence costs on the rise, organisations – especially larger ones with a predominance of manual employees – still have plenty to gain from improving absence management. Proper training of line managers would be a start – it’s astonishing that only half of the managers responsible for dealing with absence have ever been trained in this basic competence. The improvement in long-term absence is welcome, however – at last companies seem to be waking up to the benefits of early assessment and rehabilitation.”

This annual absence and labour turnover survey has been conducted each year since 1987. This year’s survey was conducted in January and February 2002. Respondents were asked to report on absence and labour turnover for 2001. Replies were received from 746 organisations; 668 responded to the full survey and 78 to a shortened follow-up survey. Organisations responding employ 2.3 million employees approximately 9 per cent of the UK workforce.

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