Employee absence rates have reached the highest level in more than a decade, according to a new report.
The survey by CIPD and Simplyhealth found that on average UK workers were absent from work for 7.8 days in the past year – two days more than the 5.8 days noted pre-pandemic.
Both organisations are now urging employers to create a culture which helps employees by enabling open conversations about health and providing access to support.
The report examined trends in staff health and wellbeing, as well as sickness absences, at 918 workplaces, which covered 6.5 million people.
Stress was discovered to be a key factor in both short and long-term absenteeism, reported by more than three in four (76%) respondents.
The study showed the top causes of short-term absence were mainly minor illnesses, noted by 94% of research participants, as well as musculoskeletal injuries and mental ill-health, reported by 45% and 39% respectively.
Long-term absences were found to be caused by mental ill-health, cited by 63%, as well as acute medical conditions, such as stroke or cancer and musculoskeletal injuries – both reported by 51%. Nearly two in five (37%) claimed that Covid-19 is still a key reason for short-term absences.
Rachel Suff, senior employee wellbeing adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development said: “Despite our research showing that most organisations are focusing on employee wellbeing, the considerable rise in absences across all sectors is a worry. External factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have had profound impacts on many people’s wellbeing.”
The research revealed that employers are taking steps to address health and wellbeing concerns, with nearly seven in 10 (69%) offering occupational sick pay leave for staff and more than four in five (82%) providing an employee assistance programme.
More than half (53%) of those polled have a standalone wellbeing strategy in place, which is a marginal increase from the 50% who reported the same in 2021.
Suff added: “It’s good to see that slightly more organisations are approaching health and wellbeing through a stand-alone strategy. However, we need a more systematic and preventative approach to workplace health. This means managing the main risks to people’s health from work to prevent stress as well as early intervention to prevent health issues from escalating where possible. It’s important that organisations create an open, supportive culture where employees feel they can come forward.”
Claudia Nicholls, chief customer officer at Simplyhealth, highlighted that employers have a key role to play in providing access to staff health and wellbeing services, particularly at a time when sickness absences are at record levels. She believes they can also have a positive effect on the economy and ease pressure on the NHS.
Nicholls explained: “Despite an increasing number of workplace health and wellbeing services being put in place, employees are experiencing increasing mental health issues and the highest rate of sickness absence in a decade.
“However, focussing on fixing sickness alone is unlikely to uncover areas where any significant improvements can be made; companies need to implement preventative health and wellbeing strategies that are supported by the most senior levels of leadership and build line manager skills and confidence to support wellbeing.”
James Townsend, employment law partner at law firm Payne Hicks Beach, said: “Employers, as a matter of best practice, will be wise to consider adding elements of discretion to any enhanced contractual sick pay policies in place from time to time in order that judgment may be exercised over when and if it is reasonable to pay enhanced company sick pay over and above statutory sick pay entitlements and when it is undesirable to do so.
“If absences due to a particular medical issue become regular or long term, employers should consider instructing external specialist occupational health advisers to give guidance on how to facilitate an early but safe return to the workplace.”