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Sickness absence shows a decline

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Employees are taking fewer sick days according to new research.

The Health Sickness Absence survey 2011, carried out by the EEF, the manufacturing employers’ group, found that from 2007 to 2010 there has been a steady fall in sickness absence.

In 2007, the average employee took 6.7 days in sick leave. In 2010, that figure was down to 5 days.

Perhaps more significantly, a record 45 per cent of all employees among those firms involved in the poll didn’t go on sick leave at all last year.

The EEF conceded that the pressures of the economic downturn may have played a part in reducing sick leave but went on to point out that the trend towards less sickness absence actually began before the recession.

The survey, which covered some 450 employers, highlighted a clear connection between those firms with strategies for training managers in sickness absence and falling absence rates. Businesses that trained their managers are one third more likely to reduce their sickness absence.

The study also measured the impact of the new ‘fit note’ regime. Fit notes allow GPs to indicate the kind of work of which an employee is capable rather than the blanket ‘no work’ of the old sick notes.

The outcome appeared to be mixed. One in five respondents said that the introduction of fit notes had helped them reduce absence, while 28 per cent said it has aided return to work discussions.

The number of companies reporting GPs as a barrier to rehabilitation also fell significantly, down from 39 per cent in 2007 to 26 per cent in 2010.

However, worries persisted that employees were still being signed off work unnecessarily. Only 17 per cent of firms judged that fit notes have speeded the return to work of employees.

Whilst barriers to rehabilitation have continued to fall, a significant number of employers are paying for private medical treatment. Nearly four out of ten companies indicated that at least one member of staff had received treatment either paid for directly or through the company.

In other findings, the research revealed that the top causes of short-term sickness absence were minor illness and back pain and other joint/muscular problems.

In the case of long-term sickness absence, the main causes were surgery or medical investigations and tests, back problems, and mental ill health, excluding stress.

The report identified a continued decrease in stress and back pain as a cause of long-term sickness absence.

The EEF said it believed that increased private provision may prove a rising trend as the UK comes out of recession. At present treatments such as physiotherapy can be taxed as benefits in kind.

Professor Sayeed Khan, the EEF’s chief medical adviser, commented: “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.”