UK Businesses Struggle to Manage Absence

U.S. employers aren't the only ones concerned about the cost of absenteeism. Employee absenteeism, due to illness or injury, has become an 11 billion problem (just over $12.5 billion U.S.) in Great Britain.

Absence from work has attracted the attention of none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hardly surprising as many estimate that it costs British businesses approximately 9 percent of the annual salary costs of larger employers. Research by the Work Foundation has discovered that despite the scale of the problem, much more could be done to manage it.

Its new report, "Attendance Management" by Stephen Bevan, examines trends and looks at the practical techniques businesses can use to reduce absence.

Although rates of absenteeism have remained virtually unchanged over the years, that is beginning to change. The UK average has just risen, for the first time in six years, to seven days per worker. However, the causes and management have undergone radical change.

While 89 percent of absences are short-term, long-term absences account for 56 percent of days lost and up to 70 percent of costs. Most disturbingly, every week approximately 3,000 people move from long-term absence to partial or total temporary or permanent disability. Of the 2.7 million people now receiving disability benefits, only 30 people, just over 1 percent, rejoin the workforce each week.

While nearly two in five people do not take any sick days each year, some jobs and sectors are significantly more prone to absenteeism. Managers are less than half as likely as line workers to take days off due to illness or injury, and workers in the public/voluntary sector are five times more likely than workers in the private sector to take sick days.

Bevan's report notes much more could be done to minimize absenteeism, starting with the proper recording of absence so that levels and patterns can be investigated. For example, the Work Foundation found that 57 percent of employers do not cost out the price of employee absences, 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.

"Absenteeism has grown from an HR issue to a business problem. While [numbers] have not changed, the renewed focus on the bottom line has highlighted the real cost of absence to UK organizations," commented Bevan, deputy director of research at the Work Foundation. " Managers in the UK have ignored the issue for too long; increased competitive pressures and more explicit legislation are forcing real focus. The good news is that sensible management techniques can make an immediate and positive impact."

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