spells of absence

Sickness absence rates don’t tell the whole story

Posted on Updated on

The number of sick days taken per person has fallen to its lowest levels ever recorded, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Last year 137 million days were lost which works out at 4.3 days per person – down from 7.2 days in 1993 when the government started keeping records.

That means a sickness absence rate of 1.9% compared to the 3.1% in 1993.

Public sector sickness absence rates were 2.9%, down from 4.3%, contrasting with the private sector rate of 1.7%.

Public sector rates have always been higher than private sector which has been attributed to its generous sick pay schemes.  The private sector rate is more like the rate in the US where until recently few workers got sickness benefits.

Within the public sector the NHS had the highest rate of sickness absence at 3.5%.

When I was a director of a large NHS Trust in the 1990s I was tasked with helping management reduce sickness absence (I had to convince the chairman that it was a line management responsibility which HR could support in different ways).

Carrying out quarterly surveys and publishing league tables I found that levels varied by occupation. Nurses had the highest rates of sickness absence, above 6%, whilst senior managers had the lowest at just over 1%. Admin staff were around the mean of 3.0%.

Taking that data alongside well-being surveys we carried out showed that nurses were the ones who smoked the most (and took off more single days) but managers drank more.

We introduced  “first day reporting of sickness absence, in person to the line manager” where possible, “return to work interviews” when the person came back to work. Monthly reporting of sickness for everybody so we could calculate days lost, number of spells (occasions) and see suspicious patterns around weekends and bank holidays.

We also introduced No Smoking policies, Healthy Eating options, Stress Management programmes, a staff counselling service, provided a gym, a physiotherapist and yoga classes. We also had an occupational health service and offered air miles as a reward to people who didn’t take time off work through sickness.

Despite this mixture of approaches it wasn’t easy reducing the levels. The latest downturn has been particularly dramatic since the economic crash of 2007 and the ONS suggests that job insecurity is a significant factor. Zero hours contracts, currently at a their highest level, can’t be helping and there are more people working as self-employed. Who measures their sickness absence?

Other factors include the opportunity for some people to work from home when they are unwell rather than actually take a day off sick. In fact the TUC believes that far too many people go to work when they are ill and shouldn’t. And that argument has been strongly made for health care staff in contact with patients and you can see the point. Would you want someone sneezing all over you as you lay in your hospital bed?

The TUC say that over the Winter half a million people went into work despite feeling ill because they didn’t want to let down their clients, colleagues, or employer.

Twenty years ago, when I was involved in helping to manage the sickness absence problem, national data, produced at that time by professional bodies, showed that older workers took longer spells of absence whereas younger workers took off more short spells. The new ONS data shows that that is no longer true.

Older workers (over-65s) now take the most time off sick whereas workers aged 25-34 take off the fewest days with a 1.5% rate. The fact that people are still working after what used to be the normal retirement age also says something about the impact of the 2007 slump and people’s needs to top up poor pensions and keep themselves active.

Older workers are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses but not enough is done to adapt the work for them and lower productivity can be attributed to a lack of investment in training older employees.. BMW in Germany are a good example of what can be done to accommodate older workers and keep them productive,

As I said at the top of the post – there’s more to sickness absence than just the numbers.