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Absenteeism costs UK business £32bn a year

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Absenteeism is costing UK business about £32bn per annum, with workers taking an average of 10 unscheduled days off, about twice that of their counterparts in the US and Asia-Pacific.

According to a study among 2,000 companies undertaken by management consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, UK personnel, who are paid an average of £25,000 per annum, take a median of 10 days unscheduled absence from work each year. The figure is on a par with levels across Western Europe (9.7 days) but compares unfavourably with rates in the US (5.5 days) and Asia Pacific (4.5 days).

In addition, Richard Phelps, PwC's HR consulting partner, said that the estimated £32bn cost of absenteeism to UK business was likely to be conservative given that it reflects only the direct cost of absence and not those costs related to lost productivity or potentially replacing staff to fill gaps.

"Absenteeism is a malaise for British business. With sickness accounting for the lion’s share of absence, the question for employers is what can be done to improve health, morale and motivation," he added. "The line between 'sickie' and 'sickness' can be blurred, with disenchantment at work sometimes exacerbating medical conditions or preventing a speedy return."

Despite the "perceived US work culture of long hours and short holidays", which could be expected to lead to higher stress levels and sickness rates, absenteeism was lower. This raised the question of whether UK employers should be investing more in the health of their workforce as "US firms tend to take greater responsibility for staff well-being, whether providing gyms in the workplace or access to councillors", Phelps said.

Moreover, keeping staff engaged was "arguably the biggest part of the battle", he added, but it was also necessary to introduce clear policies to make it "less appealing" for employees to take unscheduled leave, while protecting those with genuine illness.

The study revealed that there were also significant differences in absenteeism levels between different industries. Technology companies had the lowest rates at an average of 7.6 days, followed by banking and finance at 7.8 days. The public sector experienced the highest rates, however, at 12.2 days, with retail and leisure coming next at 11.5 days.

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