A look at how employee absence figures have changed for the better

There are, of course, times when people have to take time off work due to illness. Whether it’s a mild viral infection that means your bones ache and you can’t talk for sneezing, or something more serious, there are undoubtedly times when nearly everyone has to take some time away from the workplace to convalesce.

Interestingly, sickness absence has reduced by a fair bit over the past 20 years or so. In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of days lost to sickness went down from 178 million in 1993 to 131 million in 2011. That’s a fall of around 23 per cent and not something to be ignored. It indicates that something fundamentally important happened in that space of 18 years. Incidentally, the most recent figures posted (for 2013) show that the figure remains as 131 million – which may mean that the reduction factors have, over the past couple of years , not changed in any significant way.

But if we look at the 20 year reduction in sickness absence as a whole, the drop is so big that it’s unlikely to have been down to a single factor. More likely, it’s down to a number of things that could include the following:

·         improvements in medication

·         innovations in medical treatment

·         ongoing health and safety measures

·         less smoking among the working population

·         increased understanding of dietary requirements

·         healthy workplace initiatives

For employers this is all undoubtedly good news. But there is still of course the possibility of a situation whereby people may take time off sick (long-term) when in fact a return work may be the healthier option. The independent review of the UK’s sickness absence system – Health at Work – sought to address, in particular, cases where people ‘fall out of work and into benefits’ when in many cases adjustments to the individual role or working time could have prevented this from happening.

This is of course a complex (and potentially contentious) issue. The government’s response to the review is here, and is worth a look. One of the points made is that the intention is for the government to retain tax relief on Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). The uptake of these programmes is an issue that’s not discussed very often – and while tax relief undoubtedly means that more organisations are able to use the services of EAP providers, it would be interesting to see the statistics in terms of how many employers provide them, the resultant effect on the wellbeing of the workforce, and of course a sample of employee sentiment among those who have experience of using them.

For those of us in the fortunate position not to require sick leave long-term, are there ways in which we can minimise our own sickness absence? And are there environmental factors at play we need to be aware of?

One important factor in the health of organisations is morale. It’s undoubtedly the case that during the economic downturn,there was a health cost. Hospital admissions for stress rose to headline-making levels, and even the least stress-prone people were publicly admitting how scary the whole thing was. Despite the growth forecasts returning the picture remains mixed, however. Workplace Savings & Benefits recently reported on a survey that found financial insecurity continues to drive stress for many, while this survey on the outlook among small-to-medium business (SME) employers (by AXA Business) found that while SMEs remain ‘buoyant’ and that optimism is ‘generally high’, there were uncertatinties as to growth and recruitment. And high pay may not even be enough to ward off the blues – for those of us at the lower end of the salary scale, this Time article may be an eye-opener: 5 high-paying jobs that will make you miserable.

On a personal level, in many ways a lot of us are doing plenty to reduce sickness absence already, albeit without knowing it. By getting the recommended fruit and vegetable intake (5-a-day), or by cycling to work, or even just by staying active in our spare time, we’re having a much greater effect on reducing absence than we may realise. It’s been said that exercise is the equivalent of a ‘magic cure’ – although since it’s largely preventative, it could be easy to take for granted the positive effect it’s having on our health in terms of the things it helps ward off.

And while work is good for us, as is exercise – well, so is rest. This week it was reported that people who sleep for 7 to 8 hours a night are at less risk of being off work for 10 days or more, as compared to those sleeping fewer than 6 (pr more than 9) hours a night. Referred to as ‘optimal sleep length’, this 7 to 8 hours a night is something the vast majority of us should probably look to get. But often, it can be a challenge. For instance, in order to get that amount of sleep it’s usually necessary to have some good quality down time in the hour or two approaching bedtime. In other words, a bit of real relaxation.

Could it be that science has proved the worth of the ‘work-life balance’ ratio? Maybe not quite, but this study is a good indication that we’re designed biologically for rest as well as exertion.  As if we really needed a reminder!


Ian McCartney

Hi, I'm blogging here to share my thoughts on health and wellbeing. My aim is to look beyond the hype of the headlines and hopefully talk some health sense. My main interests are nutrition, fitness and mental health - and how they are all closely linked to each other

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