The CIPD recently published its annual survey on absence management. The survey is based on replies from almost 700 employers throughout the UK and aims to provide useful benchmarking data on absence levels. It also aims to identify trends and changes in absence levels.

The survey reports that overall absence has fallen from 7.7 days per employee last year to 6.8 days this year.

Public sector sick days have fallen to their lowest level since the survey began, standing at 7.9 days per employee per year (down from 9.1 days last year), although this is still significantly more than the private sector figure of 5.7 days per year.

Despite this overall decrease the survey does sound a note of caution. A third of employers reported an increase in so-called “presenteeism”, where workers turn up to work ill. The survey expresses concern at the negative impacts on presenteeism, including lost productivity and the transmission of illness to other employees. The survey also suggests that this increase in presenteeism could be due to increased anxiety and lack of job security among employees.

The survey also shows the continued impact of stress-related absence within the work-force. Two-fifths of employers reported that absence due to stress had increased over the last twelve months. Stress is now one of the leading causes of workplace absence. Management style and non-work reasons (such as domestic issues) were identified as leading causes of stress. However, the most common cause of stress identified by the survey is excessive workload, suggesting employees are taking on greater amounts of work due to a more streamlined workforce. It is therefore important that employers have in place effective procedures to deal with workplace stress including monitoring workload levels.

It is perhaps also worth noting that organisational change and job insecurity are a significant cause of stress amonstg public sector employees. This perhaps reflects the impact of funding cutbacks in this sector.

The survey reveals that almost a third of employers are not doing anything to reduce stress related absence. These employers might consider whether a stress management programme would help reduce absence levels. Of those that do have procedures in place for dealing with stress, the most popular ways of reducing the impact of stress in the workplace were staff surveys, risk assessments, flexible working and, unsurprisingly, facilitating a greater work life balance for employees.

Short-term absence (those less than seven days) accounts for the majority (two-thirds) of workplace absence. Unfortunately for employers, where this is accounted for by minor illnesses, as is most often the case, there may be little that can be done to prevent this type of absence. The survey does though show that family and home responsibilities can account for a significant amount of short-term absence (the survey reveals this to be a bigger issue among private sector employers) and it may be beneficial for employers to consider whether additional flexible working availability would help reduce short-term absence if this is a problem.

While costs are hard to estimate and can depend on the size of the employer, the median cost of workplace absence of those surveyed who had financial records was £600 per employee per year. So if nothing else, having good absence procedures in place can be a boost to the bottom line.

The report as a whole contains some very useful benchmarking information for employers looking to improve their absence management procedures.