The prolonged downward trend in employee absence rates has plateaued with long term sickness increasing, new research finds.
According to the EEF/Westfield Health 2012 annual sickness absence report, the overall sickness absence rate has now flattened off and remained unchanged from 2010 at 2.2%.
And while the average number of working days lost to absence in 2011 increased marginally from five days per employee to 5.1 days, this still compares to 6.7 in 2007.
However, the greatest concern to the publishers was the divergence between short and long-term absence, with almost 40% of companies seeing an increase in extended sick-leave, up 5% on 2010 alone.
This was mainly down to a jump in absence due to stress, anxiety and depression which often result in longer periods off work.
The authors called on government to support industry and medical staff in addressing this problem and to introduce the findings of the Sickness Absence Review.
The report found that companies taking a proactive approach to managing sickness absence and who were prepared to work with GPs saw the most positive results, particularly in short-term absence.
This approach has resulted in a continued year on year decline over the last five years with one third of companies seeing a decrease in 2011.
In addition, the number of employees having no sickness absence continued to improve to 51% in 2011, up from 46% in 2010.
This, the report said, reflected the steps employers have taken in the area, including setting stretching absence targets, training line managers and providing employees with Occupational Health services.
More than one in ten (13%) of companies set such stretch sickness absence targets of below 2% with, encouragingly, a significant majority (70%) achieving this target.
Another positive trend was 72% of companies (up from 58%) reported having more than 40% of employees with zero absence throughout the whole year.
Unsurprisingly manual workers have a higher absence rate than non-manual (6.7 days per employee compared to 3.2), but perhaps contrary to some views, smaller companies continued to have a lower average rate of absence than larger firms.
The research also revealed the issue of presenteeism was now being discussed significantly with 55% of companies expressing concerns, in particular on the impact on long term health, short term illness and unmotivated employees.
However, only 5% of companies monitored the cost of presenteeism.
EEF chief medical adviser Professor Sayeed Khan, said: "With our economy still suffering from weak growth we need to pull every possible lever to improve our economic performance.
"This includes helping employees to return to health and work as soon as possible.
"There are now signs that the wins to reduce short-term absence are being exhausted and we need a fresh approach from government to address the more deep-rooted problems such as stress and back pain," he added.
Westfield Health executive director Paul Shires, added: "Encouragingly, this year's survey results show a decline in short term absence, particularly amongst those companies which are being proactive in managing sickness absence and are implementing measures such as health insurance.
"As the survey shows overall sickness absence has plateaued and stress related absenteeism has grown, it is clear that more needs to be done to aid and assist employers with their healthcare needs."
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