Fall in absence levels could be masking deeper problems in the workplace

The average level of employee absence has fallen compared with last year from 7.7 days to 6.8 per employee per year, according to this year's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey.

However, the fall in absence levels coincides with almost a third of employers reporting an increase in the number of people going into work ill. The threat of redundancies and concerns over job security are shown to contribute to such 'presenteeism', with organisations that are expecting to make redundancies in the next six months more likely to report an increase in employees going into work when unwell, than employers that are not expecting to cut jobs.
Stress-related absence also appears to be on the increase, with two-fifths of employers (40%) reporting a rise over the past year and only one in ten (10%) reporting that the problem had decreased. Stress continues to feature as the most common cause of long-term absence, for the second year running. The level of reported mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, among employees is also on the increase. More than twice the number of employers reported an increase in mental health problems in 2012 than did in 2009 (2012: 44%; 2011: 39%; 2010: 38%; 2009: 21%).

According to the survey, organisations who have noted an increase in presenteeism over the past year are more likely to report an increase in stress-related absence over the same period (52% compared with 38% of those who did not report an increase in people coming in to work ill). Similarly, they are more likely to report an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression (62% compared with 35% of those who did not report an increase in people coming into work ill). The suggested link between presenteeism and both stress and mental health problems underlines the need for organisations to take pre-emptive action to address employees' concerns in times of challenge, uncertainty and change.

Commenting on the survey findings, Dr Jill Miller, Research Adviser at CIPD says: "On the face of it, the findings from this year's survey present some positive news. But we must air caution before celebrating lower absence levels because they may be masking deeper problems in the workplace. This year sees a continued increase in presenteeism which can have a damaging effect on organisations' productivity. Not only can illnesses be passed on to other colleagues, but ill employees are likely to work less effectively than usual, may be more prone to making costly mistakes and take longer to recover from their illnesses.

"Continuing economic uncertainty and fears over job security appears to be taking its toll on employees. We are seeing employees struggling into work to demonstrate their commitment, suggesting presenteeism can be a sign of anxiety. Failing to address employees' concerns is likely to confound the issue, impact on morale and commitment and may cause or exacerbate stress or mental health problems.

"We urge employers to examine whether lower absence levels within their own organisations are as a result of more effective absence management or if they reflect the negative impact of presenteeism. Overall a proactive approach to supporting employee wellbeing and managing absence, which includes training managers in how to manage people properly and early access to occupational health services, remains critical for success."

Helen Dickinson, People Director, Simplyhealth, says: "It's fair to say that the double dip recession is having an impact on business health as well as employee wellbeing, with this years survey showing a clear rise in presenteeism. The link between presenteeism and job insecurity is unsurprising. Increasing workloads coupled with worries about job security and financial challenges could be a contributory factor to stress and mental health issues being highlighted as two of the most common causes of long term absence in the workplace.

"Last year saw stress become the number one cause of workplace absence for the first time, and that trend has continued this year. In contrast, it's good to see well-being strategies increasing amongst businesses, with the survey showing 55% of organisations now have one in place compared to only 30% in 2008. This means that there is focus on doing what's best for employees and improving business health. The vital role of line managers within wellbeing strategies cannot be disputed. Early detection of health issues and ensuring the correct support is in place helps people with health problems stay in or return to work."

Other findings include:

  • Decreases in absence levels are most stark in public sector services, falling to their lowest level in ten years, with a figure of 7.9 days per employee per year. This compares to 5.7 days for workers in the private services industry, where absence levels have also fallen since 2011
  • Stress is currently the most common cause of long-term absence for non-manual workers (30%) and the joint top cause for manual workers (21%)
  • Identifying the main causes of stress at-work, the survey revealed that workload is an increasing problem, with 57% of organisations listing it in the top three most common causes, compared to 48% in 2011. Employers also listed considerable organisational change/restructuring (31%) and management style (36%) as top causes for stress, suggesting that employers could be doing more to reduce stress in the workplace
  • The survey also found that despite the increasing problem of stress, almost of a third (31%) of respondents report that their organisations are not doing anything to reduce it
  • The proportion of organisations with an employee well-being strategy (or similar) has continued to increase with 55% of respondents reporting one was in place, compared to 46% in 2010 and 2011 and 33% in 2009
  • Organisations that evaluate their well-being spend are significantly more likely to have increased their spend this year (44% compared with 16%) and are more likely to predict it will increase in 2013. This confirms findings from previous years and appears to imply that evaluations of well-being spend generally conclude that investing in employees' well-being is worthwhile

Notes to Editors

Dr Jill Miller, CIPD, and Helen Dickinson, Simplyhealth, are available for interview
Please request information on case studies from the CIPD press office
The Absence Management survey is produced by CIPD in partnership with Simplyhealth. The survey was conducted in June 2012 and received 667 responses from employers

For an advanced copy of the survey please contact a member of the CIPD press team or download from Tuesday 9 October at:

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The CIPD annual Conference and Exhibition, 6-8 November in Manchester, will include a session on 'Creating a Happy Workforce that can Deliver More with Fewer Resources' that will cover things organisations can do to create a more productive, engaged and healthier workforce. For more information please visit:

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is the world's largest Chartered HR and development professional body, setting global standards for best practice in HR. With over 135,000 members across 120 countries, the CIPD is focused on supporting and developing those responsible for the management and development of people within organisations

Simplyhealth offers a wide range of health plans to help organisations keep employees happy, healthy and at work. For more information about Simplyhealth and its range of health plans, please visit, or visit or follow on Twitter
At Simplyhealth, we have been providing healthcare solutions for 140 years, dedicated to serving our customers through a variety of cash plans, dental plans, private medical insurance, healthcare trusts and mobility and living aids. Simplyhealth is a trading name of Simplyhealth Access, which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority

CIPD Press Enquiries
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The information contained in these articles is intended to be for general interest, and should not be relied upon for specific conditions or complaints. You should always consult your GP or other healthcare practitioner for specific advice. The information provided is not the opinion of Simplyhealth and has been sourced through a third party.