Headlines: August 26th, 2003

New research has shown that in spite of the scale of the problem of absence from work – estimated to cost British organisations 11 billion pounds every year – every year much more could be done to manage it. The report, ‘Attendance management’, produced for The Work Foundation by Stephen Bevan, examines trends and looks at the practical techniques organisations can use to reduce absence.It finds that although the headline figures for absence have remained virtually unchanged, a quiet revolution has been taking place. The UK average has just risen, for the first time in six years, to 7 days per worker, but its causes and management have undergone radical change.

While 89 per cent of absences are short term, long term episodes account for 56 per cent of days lost and up to 70 per cent of costs. Most disturbingly, every week approximately 3,000 people move from long-term sickness to ongoing incapacity benefit. Of the 2.7 million people now receiving incapacity benefit, only 30 people, just over 1 per cent, rejoin the workforce each week.

It shows that while nearly two in five people are not absent at any point in the year, some jobs and sectors are significantly more prone. Managers are less than half as likely as manual workers to be absent – 3.95 per cent against 1.63 per cent – and those in the public and voluntary sector are five times more likely than workers in IT to be off sick with figures of 7.86 per cent against 1.57 per cent.

Despite the scale of the problem, the report says, much more could be done to minimise it, starting with the proper recording of absence so that levels and patterns can be investigated. For example, The Work Foundation has found that 57 per cent of employers do not cost absence, which suggests a lack of data or insight. The report also examines the causes of absence and management practices – both short- and long term and prevention.

Stephen Bevan, deputy director of research at the foundation, says, “Absence has grown from an HR issue to a business problem. While headline figures have not changed, the renewed focus on the bottom line has highlighted the real cost of absence to UK organisations.” The good news, he says, is that sensible management techniques can have an immediate and positive impact.