Workplace absences soar to highest level in over a decade

The CIPD and Simplyhealth’s new report shows a big upsurge in sickness absence, but the causes remain the same

UK employees were absent an average of 7.8 days over the past year according to new survey findings from the CIPD and Simplyhealth. This is the highest level we’ve reported in over a decade and two whole days more than the pre-pandemic rate of 5.8 days.

The upsurge in sickness absence comes at a time when employers are under increasing pressure with recruitment and retention challenges. As a result, the CIPD and Simplyhealth are calling on organisations to have an open and supportive culture where people can speak to line managers about health issues and access helpful support and adjustments such as flexible working options and health services.

The survey analysed trends in sickness absence and employee health and wellbeing among 918 organisations, representing 6.5 million employees.

As well as an overall increase in absence, it found stress to be a significant factor for both short- and long-term absence, with over 76% of respondents reporting stress-related absence in their organisation in the past year.

The top causes of short-term absence are:

·        Minor illnesses (94%)

·        Musculoskeletal injuries (45%)

·        Mental ill health (39%)

Causes of long-term absence are similar:

·        Mental ill health (63%)

·        Acute medical conditions, such as stroke or cancer (51%)

·        Musculoskeletal injuries (51%)

The findings also show that over a third (37%) of organisations reported COVID-19 as still being a significant cause of short-term absence.

However, organisations are attempting to address health and wellbeing issues overall, through a range of support. In fact, 69% of organisations offer occupational sick pay leave schemes for all employees and 82% provide an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Overall, 53% of organisations surveyed have a stand-alone wellbeing strategy, which is a slight increase from our previous survey in 2021 (50%).

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.

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.

Rachel Suff, Senior Employee Wellbeing adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development

With record numbers of people off sick, employers have a vital role to play in supporting them through workplace health and wellbeing services. They can have a positive impact on the economy and ease pressure on the NHS. 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.

Claudia Nicholls, Chief Customer Officer at Simplyhealth

You can read the full report here.