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Region among the worst on absenteeism

The 2014 Sickness Absence survey, published by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and Jelf, Employee Benefits, a specialist business consultancy, showed that 5.5 days per person a year are lost to sickness in the North East while, at 2.4%, sickness rates are above the national average.

Nationally, levels of absence have reached a record low of 2.1%, equivalent to 4.9 days per employee per year. This remains around the levels seen over the last few years. However, long-term absence has increased, with almost 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 cited it as the most common cause, an increase of 4% in the last five years. EEF said this could reflect, for the first time, evidence of 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% offer access to occupational health services for employees. More than a quarter of companies also offer employee assistance programmes, health checks and health cash plans.

But there is increasing evidence that manufacturers are seeing no benefits from the ‘Fit Note’, a programme of which EEF has supported since its introduction and employers still report 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.

Andrew Tuscher, North East region director at EEF, said:“Sickness and absence levels in the region are marginally above average, so 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.”

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