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Tackling long-term absenteeism

12 March 2004 - UK manufacturers are doing more to tackle the growing problem of long-term employee absence but complain about lack of adequate support from the National Health Service.

Research based on 896 manufacturing workplaces employing almost 200,000 people, published by IRS Employment Review and EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, shows that although long-term absence accounts for just 5.7% of absence cases, it represents almost 70% of the total time lost from work.

Companies are responding to rising concerns over cost and employee well-being in a number of ways. Over 83% of companies say that they offer rehabilitation to employees on long-term sick leave, almost a third are engaged in programmes to improve their long-term absence management and firms draw support from a mix of in-house (19.2%) and external occupational health services (36%).

But business managers feel that the services offered by the NHS and General Practitioners (GPs) are failing to support their efforts. While GPs help to manage long-term absence in almost two-thirds (64.9%) of sites surveyed, only one in ten (9.7%) employers consider that GPs provide the most effective means of support.

The NHS’s failure to provide fast access to services such as physiotherapy affects almost half of companies surveyed (46.4%) and presents the single greatest barrier to successful rehabilitation for 16% of firms. Apart from the fundamental issue of the absent employee’s health condition, only employee resistance to taking up rehabilitation presents a greater single barrier (16.4%).

EEF’s Chief Medical Adviser, Dr Sayeed Khan said:

"Long-term sickness absence is moving higher up the agenda and while firms are responding, they need greater support.

"There is a fundamental problem around the lack of training of GPs in occupational health and the difficulties they face when balancing their role as the employee’s advocate and in providing evidence-based medical guidelines. Greater efforts need to be made to improve relationships and understanding between employers, GPs and other health professionals.

"The mindset and culture of sickness absence and rehabilitation will not suddenly change, and there will always be employers and employees who will not participate. But those willing to begin to knock down the barriers will be taking a step towards a healthy, happy and productive workforce and a business that is both successful and sustainable."

Full survey results can be found in issue 794 of IRS Employment Review (, published by LexisNexis UK.

More significant findings:

  • A median of 4.56 days per employee was lost to absence in 2002 (equal to 2% of available working time); 5.7% of absences is long term.
  • Cost is the main driver behind efforts to improve management of long-term absence in more than a third of companies (39.1%) with rising concern over employee well-being the driver in one in four (21.4%).
  • Four in 10 (40.1%) managers surveyed report that they have experienced more long-term absence cases due to stress in the past five years. Three in 10 cite other mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety as the cause.
  • Other significant causes of long-term sickness absence that have increased in the past five years include: non-work-related accidents and injuries (21.1%); surgery (18.6%); heart problems (18.5%); and work-related accidents and injuries (16.5%).
  • Employers do not believe that line managers take responsibility for managing long-term absence but six in 10 believe that the site managers are good at tackling absence.
  • Rehabilitation, when undertaken, is successful - resulting in the return of employees to their previous jobs in most cases.
  • Employers report a host of current initiatives in the rehabilitation area, focusing on recruiting more occupational health support, new policies and procedures, earlier intervention in individual cases and working with insurers to build return to work into insurance services.
  • Just 53.1% of surveyed workplaces have written policies covering long-term absence and rehabilitation. However, more than eight in 10 (83.4%) employers offer rehabilitation to employees on long-term sick leave.
  • Typical rehabilitation involves a combination of a phased return to work and modified duties, supported by regular reviews involving the employee, their line manager, personnel and occupational health (usually externally provided).
  • A phased return to work is viewed as the most effective element of rehabilitation, while the greatest barrier to successful rehabilitation is the health condition of the absent employee.
  • Employers strongly favour tax relief for their rehabilitation efforts but there is little support for any new legislation covering rehabilitation.

IRS Employment Review managing editor, Mark Crail said:

"Long-term absence is disruptive and costly to any business so it is vital to get people back to work - particularly in a tight labour market. Employers are proving that they do care about for their workforce; almost a quarter report a rising concern for employee well-being. Furthermore, (97.9%) believe that maintaining contact with employees on sick leave is one of the most effective ways of managing long-term absence.

"Given the growing sense of urgency about the need to get employees back to work, the government intends to provide a national rehabilitation service that, it hopes, will signal a "step change" in public policy. Rehabilitation, when undertaken, is successful - resulting in the return of employees to their previous jobs in most cases. The survey shows that there must be closer collaboration between health professionals and employers, if workers are to get back to their jobs as quickly as possible."

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