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East Anglia: Sickness absence in region is below the national average, EEF survey shows

06:00 16 June 2014

Sickness absence in the East of England is below the national average, according to a new survey.

Sickness absence in the East of England is below the national average, according to a new survey.

The East of England has one of the lowest sickness rates in the UK, according to the 2014 Sickness Absence survey.

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The report, published by manufacturers’ organisation EEF and employee benefits consultancy and Jelf, shows that an average of 4.5 days per person a year are lost to sickness in the region, compared with a national average of 4.9 days.

This represents a sickness absence rate in the region of 2%, also slightly better than the national average of 2.1%.

Although the national figure is the lowest ever recorded by the annual survey, the level of long-term absence has increased with nearly two fifths of companies reporting an increase in the last two years.

According to the survey, stress and other mental health-related disorders have shown the biggest increase in long-term absence, with just over half of companies reporting it as a cause, an increase of 7% in the last five years.

A fifth of companies cite it as the most common cause, an increase of 4% in the last five years which, the report suggests, could reflect the effect on employees of the long period of recession and austerity.

This increase comes despite more investment by employers in managing sickness absence and placing employee health and well-being programmes on a par with other business investments.

Two thirds of companies now have sickness absence programmes, while 68% of companies offer access to occupational health services for employees. Over a quarter of companies also offer employee assistance programmes, health checks and health cash plans.

However, there is increasing evidence that manufacturers are seeing little benefit from the “Fit Note” system under which GPs are encouraged to indicate what type of work an individual is able to carry out, as opposed to simply signing them off as unfit under for old “sick note” system.

Only 24% of employers believe that the Fit Note has resulted in employees returning to work earlier, compared to 40% who said that it had not.

In addition, employers are still reporting that the quality of the advice given by GPs is poor, despite half of employers saying they have made adjustments to enable employees to return to work.

More companies disagree (45%) than agree (16%) that the advice given by GPs about employees’ fitness for work has improved, with the gap between positive and negative responses having widened substantially over the past two years.

EEF is now urging the Government to set a cut-off date by which all GPs and medical professionals in hospitals will have received training in use of the Fit Note, and to set a similar cut-off date following which all Fit Notes must be computer-generated.

Jim Davison, eastern region director at EEF, said: “Sickness and absence levels in this region may be amongst the lowest in the UK, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.

“Driving down absence rates, helping more employees return to work earlier and encouraging their well-being is critical for our economy.

“But, despite employers increasing investment in managing sickness absence and providing their employees with more health-related benefits, the improvement in overall absence rates has more or less now plateaued.

“From now on the focus has to be on reducing long-term absence, which is only going to happen if we up our game. This must start by making the ‘Fit Note’ fit for purpose so that it can make real inroads in reducing unnecessary sickness absence.”

Iain Laws, managing director for UK healthcare at Jelf Employee Benefits, added: “A focus on prevention must become a priority for UK employers who need to maintain a competitive workforce within an overall population that is both ageing and ailing.

“This is not only essential to tackle absence, but to also address the less easily identifiable issue of presenteeism, which can see job performance decline as a result of ill health. This is fundamentally a well-being problem with stress and musculoskeletal issues almost certainly mirrored as the main causes, as with absenteeism.”

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