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David Woods writes an interesting article in HR Magazine this week, highlighting the latest statistics around sickness absence. It seems far fewer days are being taken off, but to what should we attribute that to:

“Sickness absence is continuing on a downward trend among UK employees, according to a joint survey of sickness absence released today by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, and insurer Westfield Health.
The EEF/Westfield Health 2011 Sickness Absence Survey shows from 2007 to 2010 there has been a steady fall in sickness absence, with the average employee taking 5.0 days sickness in 2010, compared to 6.7 days in 2007.

An all-time high of 45% of employees took no days off through sickness in 2010. While recessionary effects may have played a part, this trend began before the recession, with year-on-year improvements over the past five years.

The survey shows a clear correlation between falling absence rates and those companies with strategies in place to train managers in sickness absence and tougher absence targets. More than two-thirds of companies are now achieving their targets, compared to half in 2007, while those companies that trained their managers are one-third more likely to reduce their sickness absence.

Sayeed Khan, EEF chief medical adviser, said: “The continued downward trend in sickness absence is welcome recognition of efforts by companies and government to get people back to work. In particular, it is striking that the companies that have proactively contacted their GPs to discuss adjusting people’s working arrangements have seen the highest level of response.

“It is also clear that doing the basics, such as training line managers and GPs in managing sickness absence, pays dividends. If we are to see the trend continuing to improve and the economic benefit to the UK economy this brings, it is vital that government continues to fund the training of GPs in health and work issues.”

Jill Davies, chief executive of Westfield Health, said: “The workforce is an employer’s most valuable asset and the falling sickness absence rates show that the right steps are being taken to continue this positive trend – but there is still plenty to be done.

“As a health insurance provider, we were particularly encouraged to see that companies are using some form of health insurance scheme to tackle absence rates. We envisage this trend continuing as providers develop benefits which complement the NHS in areas where provision is limited or unavailable, while also offering highly relevant health plans for businesses to negate the impact of sickness absence.”

The survey also shows the first results of the impact on sickness absence of the introduction of the ‘fit note’. Here, the results were mixed. On a positive note, 20% of companies said the introduction had helped them reduce absence and 28% said it had aided return-to-work discussions. The number of companies reporting the GP as a barrier to rehabilitation also fell significantly, down from 39% in 2007 to 26% in 2010.

But significant concerns remain that employees were being signed off unnecessarily and further action is needed if the benefits are to be realised. Only 17% of companies said the fit note has enabled adjustments to be made so employees could return more quickly. As such, EEF is urging the Government to step up efforts to embed a culture of rehabilitation and reducing sickness absence among employers, employees and the medical profession. EEF will also be providing support to companies to help them work more effectively with their local GPs.

While barriers to rehabilitation have continued to fall, a significant number of employers are paying for private medical treatment. Some 39% of companies indicated that at least one member of staff had received treatment either paid for directly or through the company (24%), while 15% received treatment through a medical insurance scheme.

EEF believes increased private provision may prove a rising trend as the UK comes out of recession and health service reforms create public uncertainly about the speed of access to NHS services. At present, treatments such as physiotherapy may be taxed as benefits in kind, particularly if it treats a condition not caused by work and this is a major disincentive to their provision. Government needs to take a more positive approach in this area, says the EEF, and to send an important signal to employers about the importance of their role in providing for rehabilitation.

The survey was conducted online between 6 January and 2 February and received 454 replies”

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