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Sick days reach 10-year high

Sick businessman looking at a thermometer, with a hot drink on his desk

Sickness absences are on the rise, while record numbers of people are off work due to long-term ill health. How can employers support their employees' health and wellbeing to help reverse this trend?

Top causes of sickness absence

UK employees were off sick from work an average of 7.8 days over the past year, up from 5.8 before the pandemic, new research shows.

At a time when employers are facing recruitment and retention challenges, the study by the CIPD and Simplyhealth revealed that sick days are at the highest level in over a decade.

Trends in sickness absence and employee health and wellbeing at 918 organisations, representing 6.5 million employees, were analysed for the report.

The top causes of short-term absence were:

  1. Minor illnesses (94%)
  2. Musculoskeletal injuries (45%)
  3. Mental ill health (39%)

While the peak of the pandemic may be behind us, over a third (37%) of organisations reported that Covid-19 is still a significant cause of short-term absence.

For long-term absence, the top causes were:

  1. Mental ill health (63%)
  2. Acute medical conditions, such as stroke or cancer (51%)
  3. Musculoskeletal injuries (51%)

Stress was also a significant factor for both short- and long-term absence, with 76% of respondents reporting stress-related absence in their organisation in the past year.

Long-term sickness

Separate research shows that across the UK, long-term ill health prevents more than two million people from working.

The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) found that, of the 41.6 million people of working age (16-64) in the UK, 2.5 million (1 in 16) are economically inactive due to long-term sickness.

Calling for greater investment in occupational health, the SOM said that this historically high figure represents an "immediate and pressing concern" for the government.

The report noted that the UK has an ageing population, high rates of excess weight as well as alcohol consumption and a legacy of smoking, resulting in long-term physical and mental health problems. There has also been an increase in economic inactivity in young men, aged 16 to 24, with sharp increases in mental health issues.

Pressures in health and social care delivery, including the impact of Covid-19, have led to backlogs for treatment and worsening health outcomes.

Systematic approach

Organisations are addressing health and wellbeing issues through occupational sick pay leave schemes (69%) and access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) (82%), according to the CIPD/Simplyhealth report. Only 53% have a stand-alone wellbeing strategy, although this is a slight increase from the previous survey in 2021 (50%).

"External factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have had profound impacts on many people's wellbeing," said Rachel Suff, senior Employee Wellbeing adviser at the CIPD.

"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. It's important that organisations create an open, supportive culture where employees feel they can come forward."

Posted by Fidelius on October 16th 2023

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