The Blog

More Articles: Latest Popular Archives

Do we know the cost of sick days?

Article by Pamela Gellatly

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that absence in the UK labour market in 2021 had increased to 4.6 days per employee.  Our data suggests that sickness absence data are often under reported.  In a recent roundtable debate with several major intermediaries there was a consensus that many organisations struggle to record and report sickness absence accurately.

Minor illnesses remain the number one reason for absence as a percentage of days lost, but these short-term illnesses appear to have fallen significantly post the pandemic.  This is potentially due to the increase in homeworking and the further problems that employers face in knowing whether a person is working when then should not be, or that they are working but are not being effective or homeworking has increased the problems associated with reporting short term sickness absence

Musculoskeletal continues to rank as a percentage of days lost 23.3 million, as the second highest reason for absence with mental health ranked third at a significantly lower number of days lost at 18 million.   As a percentage of occurrences, the pattern is the same. These data vary from suggestions that mental health is the main reason for absence – so why is there such a variance?

Our data suggests that the average number of days lost for mental health has reduced post pandemic to circa 20 days per episode from 28 days. This appears to be due to more short-term absence being recorded. Musculoskeletal absence per episode has also reduced to c12days from c16 days.  Minor illnesses are interesting with the common range of problem such as Cold/Flu; Covid and Digestive all averaging around 5 days.

The data also varies by age, gender and size of workforce. ONS suggest that women in all age groups except the over 65 report significantly higher reasons for absence than males – why?  We see this trend across all age groups.  Mental health tends to be highest however in the under 30 age group for both females and males.  Whilst musculoskeletal disorders increase with age.

What causes or contributes to sickness absence is a key question to understanding the reasons for absence?  The answer is very few organisations know and to reduce the risk of ill health provide a range of health benefits to support employees and address the risks – but do benefits such as a private healthcare plans, EAP, sick pay etc., really help?

The data that are lacking are that associated with the underlying cause of ill health which in the research conducted by healthcare rm over the last 8 years, suggests that around 85% of workplace illness could be prevented by tackling underlying causes, which would rarely be addressed by a clinical intervention, is likely to lead to circa 40% of employees having a repeat of the same illness or another illness caused by similar underlying health risks.

From the data collected, healthcare rm can also determine that some of many of these sick days could be prevented if employees are educated on how to take more responsibility for their own health.  This is unlikely to be achieved by Wellbeing programmes alone but by a very different assessment and intervention process to help employees really understand what they can and need to do to reduce the risk of ill health.

Out of 120,000 ill health cases assessed by healthcare rm, 94% of these individuals were not meeting the recommended guidelines for exercise, 70% were overweight/obese and the combination of these two risk factors alone significantly increased the incident rate of ill health – especially mental health and musculoskeletal problems. In addition, 43%, were achieving fewer than six hours of sleep per night and circa 55% had negative attitudes, beliefs, and fears about their condition, whilst others had perceived issues about their work.

For companies who engage with the healthcare rm integrated approach to ill health and wellbeing, 70% of employees return to work earlier than the clinical average significantly reducing the cost of sickness in the workplace. For those employees receiving treatment from the wellbeing programme, 75% of those engaging in psychological support achieved a positive outcome after three counselling/CBT sessions and 87% of those engaging in proactive musculoskeletal support did not go absent for 12 months after receiving treatment.

Workplace sickness is always going to be costly for an organisation but this can be significantly reduced, or often avoided, when the appropriate support is in place. Over the last three years, we have seen a shift in organisations looking for more self-serve wellbeing benefits. Employers realise that their people are their key asset and they must take steps to support them. This was quickly moving higher up the corporate agenda but has been further exuded following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thanks to better communications, the advance of digital pathway support and other wellbeing initiatives, employees and their families now have a better understanding of their health and how to reduce their health risks. The ease of access also means they can take more responsibility to ensure they get themselves better.

    Dr Pamela Gellatly is CEO of Healthcare rm, part of HCM. Pamela founded healthcare rm in 2000 to bring an integrated approach to employee health management that incorporates safety, health, and wellbeing.

    Receive more HR related news and content with our monthly Enewsletter (Ebrief)