New Research on Sickness Absence

Posted in : HR Updates on 12 March 2014
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
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Helen O'Brien writes:

A new study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed some interesting facts around sickness absence. It’s an age-old issue for Croner clients, each year a quarter of the total numbers of calls our employment advice lines receive are on this very subject.

The ONS study reveals that in the last 20 years, sickness absence has decreased in the UK from 178 million to 131 million days. This may be down to employers increasingly recognising the importance and benefits of improving sickness absence rates and taking responsibility for this.

Causes of Sickness Absence

In 2013 musculoskeletal problems, such as back and neck pain, accounted for 31 million lost working days. This was closely followed by minor illnesses (coughs and colds) at 27 million and then stress/anxiety/depression (15 million). Although more working days were lost due to musculoskeletal problems, minor illnesses were the most common reason given for sickness absence (30%). This is because these types of illness generally have a shorter duration.

Men Vs Women

Sickness absence rates for both sexes has fallen in the last 20 years, however men have a consistently lower rate of absence than women. The percentage of working hours lost to sickness for women has gone from 3.8% to 2.6%, while men have seen a 1.1% reduction to 1.6%. The research also revealed that women were 42% more likely to be off work due to sickness than men. There are almost likely to be a number of factors why women have higher sickness absence rates than men. This may be down to women taking time off sick to look after dependents rather than taking parental leave, or it could be that they work industries (such as the health sector), where they have a higher chance of contracting an illness.

Age as a Factor

Those aged between 50 and 64, continue to have the highest rate of hours lost through sickness at 2.8%. This is followed by the over 65s, who lost 2.3% of working hours. While the 50-64 age group have the highest rate, this group has also seen the biggest fall since 1993. The over 65s however, had the smallest fall over the 20-year period, which could be connected to an increase in the number of people working beyond the state pension age.

Public Vs Private

The private sector continues to see lower rates of absence than the public sector (1.8% and 2.9% respectively). However the gap between the two is narrowing. The reason for the difference is historical; typically public sector employees have benefitted from more generous sick pay provisions, whereas in the private sector, they are more likely to not be paid for a spell of sickness.

Unsurprisingly, self-employed workers are less likely to take sick leave than employees.

The study also found that managers, directors and senior officials had the lowest rates of sickness absence and workers in Process Plant and Machine Operatives were 71% more likely to be off work.

Here are some top tips on managing sickness absence:

  • Ensure that absence reporting rules and procedures are properly communicated to all staff
  • Make sure that you have a sickness absence policy in place
  • Get management buy-in to the notion of an absence management policy
  • Collate meaningful absence records
  • Keep in touch with absent employees
  • Train managers to deal effectively with absence issues as soon as they arise
  • Be aware of the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  • Consider flexible working arrangements.
This article is correct at 21/10/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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