Fall in absence levels in U.K. could mask deeper problems

Levels of presenteeism, stress and mental health problems rise: Survey

The average level of employee absences has fallen compared with last year from 7.7 days per employee per year to 6.8 per employee per year, according to a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)/Simplyhealth survey.

However, the decrease coincides with almost one-third of employers reporting an increase in the number of people going to work ill. Organizations expecting to make redundancies in the next six months are more likely to report an increase in employees going into work when unwell, found the survey of 667 employers.

Stress-related absences also appear to be on the increase, with two-fifths of employers reporting a rise over the past year and only 10 per cent reporting 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 per cent; 2011: 39 per cent; 2010: 38 per cent; 2009: 21 per cent).

Employers that 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 per cent compared with 38 per cent of those that did not report an increase in people coming in to work ill), found the survey.

Similarly, they are more likely to report an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression (62 per cent compared with 35 per cent of those that did not report an increase in people coming into work ill).

"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,” said Jill Miller, research adviser at CIPD. “This year sees a continued increase in presenteeism which can have a damaging effect on organizations’ 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.

The double dip recession is having an impact on business health as well as employee well-being, with this year’s survey showing a clear rise in presenteeism, said Helen Dickinson, people director at Simplyhealth.

“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.

Well-being strategies are increasing amongst businesses, as 55 per cent of organizations now have one in place compared to 30 per cent in 2008, found the survey.

Identifying the main causes of stress at work, the survey revealed workload is an increasing problem, with 57 per cent of employers listing it in the top three most common causes, compared to 48 per cent in 2011. Employers also listed considerable organizational change or restructuring (31 per cent) and management style (36 per cent) as top causes for stress.

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