Stress now top reason for long-term sickness absence

Absence levels static but mental health conditions an increasing problem for public and private sectors

Stress has become the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees, as fears over job security take their toll on people’s mental health, a survey has found.

However, overall absence levels have remained static across both the private and public sectors, perhaps due to the positive impact that health and wellbeing services are having on workplaces.

This year’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey reveals that although overall absence levels show little change, the proportion of absence that is stress-related has increased across both the private and public sectors. Nearly four in ten (39%) employers report an increase in stress-related absence, compared to just 12% reporting a decrease.

Acute conditions such as stroke, cancer and musculoskeletal issues remain significant reasons for workplace absence, the survey suggests, but for the first time stress has emerged as the top cause of non-manual employees being away from work. For manual employees, stress is now level with acute medical conditions and has overtaken musculoskeletal problems to become the top cause of long-term absence.

Nevertheless, overall employee absence levels have remained static at 7.7 days per employee per year. Public sector absence has decreased from 9.6 days per employee per year last year to 9.1 days this year and private sector absence has increased from 6.6 days in 2010 to 7.1 days in this year’s survey.

However, there is a particular increase in stress-related absence among public sector organisations, with 50% of these respondents reporting an increase. Job insecurity is also reported as a more common cause of work-related stress in the public sector this year (24%) compared with last year (10%) and is higher than in the private (14%) and non-profit sectors (14%).

CIPD adviser Dr Jill Miller said that stress is a particular challenge in the public sector where the amount of major change and restructuring would appear to be the root cause.

“To a large degree, managing stress is about effective leadership and people management, particularly during periods of major change and uncertainty,” she said.

The research shows that employers planning to make redundancies in the next six months are significantly more likely to report an increase in mental health problems among their staff (51% compared with 32% who are not planning redundancies).

Dr Miller said that line managers need to focus on regaining the trust of their employees and openly communicating throughout the change process to avoid unnecessary stress and potential absences.

Gill Phipps, HR spokesperson for Simplyhealth, said that it was “encouraging” that almost half of employers have a wellbeing strategy in place, with 73% offering counselling services and a further 69% providing an employee assistance programme.

“These benefits allow employees access to information and advice on workplace issues, as well as emotional, psychological and personal issues, and can be a huge help during difficult times,” she said.

However, Phipps added that employers need to ensure that benefits such as these are communicated effectively to staff in order for employees to get the most from them.

The research was based on 592 valid responses to an online survey.

The full report can be seen here.


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