CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey

Average absence level back up to 7.6 days per employee

The number of employers making changes to working patterns in a positive move to try and reduce long-term absence levels has increased by 20% in the last year alone, according to figures released today by the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.

The annual CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey reveals that, after a small decrease reported in last year’s survey, absence is back up to the levels observed in 2011 and 2010, at an average of 7.6 days per employee. Absence levels are highest in the public services sector (8.7 days per employee per year) and lowest in the manufacturing and production sector (6 days per employee per year).  Absence levels tend to increase with organisation size, regardless of sector. 

With absence levels on the rise again, employers are attaching growing importance to making changes to working patterns and environments, as a means of managing long-term absence levels: 85% of employers reported that they’d adjusted working patterns this year, compared to just 65% in last year’s survey. This spike bucks the trend of previous years, with figures only marginally improving by 2% between 2010 and 2012, and over 70% of these organisations report that introducing flexible working opportunities in the past year has had a positive impact on absence levels.

Overall, two-thirds of working time lost to absence is accounted for by short-term absences of up to seven days. A fifth is attributed to long-term absences (four weeks or more). There are, however, significant sector differences. Just under half of absence in the public sector is short term, compared with over three-quarters in the private sector. Smaller organisations attribute a higher proportion of their absence to short-term leave compared with larger organisations.

The data suggests that employers are actively looking at what reasonable adjustments can be made at work to help employees return after a period of absence. For example, small changes to working hours, such as 10-6 instead of 9-5, could help employees better balance their responsibilities in and outside of work.

The benefit of changes to working patterns has been recognised by many employers, with over 70% of organisations reporting a positive impact on employee motivation and employee engagement. A further 46% also stated they were using flexible working options to support employees with mental health problems. 

Flexible working patterns are also increasingly being used as a tool to manage short-term absence (2013: 62%, 2012: 53%, 2011: 54% and 2010: 51%). This is particularly important given two thirds of working time lost to absence is accounted for by short-term absence. Worryingly a quarter (26%) of organisations say ‘pulling a sickie’ is still a common cause of short-term absence, which is an increase on last year’s figure of 17%.

Dr. Jill Miller, CIPD Research Adviser and co-author of the report said: “It’s fantastic to see employers recognising the benefits of increased flexible working opportunities. And it’s not just about benefits for employers - over 50% of employees report that flexible working helps them achieve a better work–life balance generally, also citing that it makes them healthier, more productive and reduces the amount of time that they take off sick.

“Offering more flexible working opportunities also helps to respond to the needs of the UK’s ageing workforce, in which older employees will increasingly need and want to work in different ways and with different hours as they move towards retirement. Having conversations with employees early, as soon as an issue arises, could enable more people to stay in employment. This kind of approach will greatly reduce absence levels and improve employees’ overall well-being. 

“It’s really important for businesses to recognise new ways of working to support a diverse workforce and to retain talent. Hopefully employees will now be able to better balance their work and home demands.”

Helen Dickinson, People Director
Getting flexible working right can lead to higher motivation levels, better productivity and increased flexibility. Balancing both the needs of the company and the employee often results in happier and healthier employees and lower absence levels. “The role of the line manager is essential. Flexible working works well when line managers and employers are aware of the different lifestyle demands employees may have. By helping employees to manage those demands better and perhaps adapting how, when or where the employee works can help to achieve greater commitment and motivation. As well as the employer’s role, employees must recognise that flexibility is two way and being adaptable to help the business succeed too. It is about building an environment where the employee can have open and honest conversations about the challenges they are facing
Helen Dickinson, People Director

CIPD/Simplyhealth will showcase key findings of the report and explore absence management and employee wellbeing trends on 7 November at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

Notes to Editors

  • A spokesperson from both the CIPD and Simplyhealth UK is available for interview
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  • The full report is available to download here 
  • The CIPD is the professional body for HR and people development. It has over 130,000 members internationally working in HR, learning and development, people management and consulting across private businesses and organisations in the public and voluntary sectors.  As an independent and not for profit organisation, the CIPD is committed to championing better work and working lives for the benefit of individuals, business, the economy and wider society - because good work and all it entails is good for business and society at large, and what is good for business should also be good for people’s working lives.  The CIPD brings together extensive research and thought leadership, practical advice and guidance, professional development and rigorous professional standards to drive better capabilities and understanding in how organisations of all kinds operate and perform, and in how they manage and develop their people. A Royal Charter enables the CIPD to confer individual chartered status on members who meet the required standards of knowledge, practice and behaviours.
  • The CIPD is proud to celebrate its centenary in 2013: one hundred years of leading HR into the future. For more information about the CIPD’s history, please visit