UK workers are taking fewer days off sick than at any time since records began in 1993 – but mental health issues continue to be an increasing reason for absence.

On 30 July 2018, the Office for National Statistics, Office Force Survey released its latest data in relation to sickness absence in the UK workforce.

Andrew Rowell, head of Employment at Spearing Waite solicitors in Leicester, takes a look at the figures.

Sickness absence has reduced markedly since 1993, when the data began to be measured. In 1993, employees took an average of 7.2 days off sick per year. This fell to 4.1 days in 2017.

What many of us engaged in HR and employment may have found surprising is that 2017 represented a marked reduction in sickness absence days from 2016 – and the lowest figure of all time.

What might be behind this reduction in sickness absence?

Commentators suggest that it could be a post-global recession symptom of ‘presenteeism’, with workers being more acutely aware of a lack of job security and being reluctant to take time off work when ill.

Adding to this is the fact that employees must now have been in post for at least two years before they can make a claim for unfair dismissal. This rose from one year in 2012, having at times previously been as low as six months.

There is of course a potentially much simpler solution – which is that the workforce is healthier, and work is safer. People are undertaking less dangerous jobs and perhaps fewer people of working age are getting ill to the point of needing to take days off.

Additionally, companies offering flexible working and home working may often find that a worker who may not feel well enough to come into the workplace may feel sufficiently well enough to work from home – and so not report an absence.

There could be other factors such as a large growth in the number of migrant workers during the period identified, perhaps these workers are generally less likely to take time off for sickness.

The so-called ‘gig’ economy is likely to play a part in the reduced sickness absence figures. Self-employed people consistently take fewer sickness absence days than those directly employed workers.

Public sector sickness absence rates have fallen but remain higher than in the private sector. One possible reason for this is more favourable sick pay arrangements for many public sector workers than for those doing similar jobs in the private sector. An alternative, although probably less persuasive, explanation is an older workforce in some areas of the public sector.

The growing impact of mental health

What is perhaps less surprising, for those of us engaged in employment law and human resources, but equally interesting, is that the reason given for sickness absence is now more likely to be on the grounds of mental health. This trend is particularly prevalent in workers under 35 years of age. This may be due to increased awareness of mental health issues.

What should you be doing as a business and ‘employer of choice’?

By ensuring your business has the correct contractual provisions and non-contractual policies, you are best able to make sure your business experiences as few days’ sickness absence as possible.

Taking an active approach to absence management is key.

A clear policy for reporting absences, together with return to work interviews can all help with reducing sickness absence. These statistics reflect a wide range of factors, including a realisation that overly generous contractual provisions, or non-contractual policies on sick pay, can hinder the ability of a business to reduce sickness absence.

Businesses should take an active approach to managing absence of all kinds to maximise productivity. This of course must be balanced by not encouraging sick workers to attend work in an unproductive capacity which could present risks to otherwise healthy employees.

With mental health increasingly the cause of absence, businesses need to be aware of where their obligations begin and end.

Having specific policies addressing mental health and training managers can be of enormous benefit in dealing with what can otherwise be a very sensitive and difficult subject.

While mental health is now rightfully given parity of esteem with physical health, employers must not feel as though they are powerless in these situations.

For more information or advice, please contact Andrew Rowell

Click here to find out more about employment law and HR services at Spearing Waite.

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