Absenteeism continues to cost the UK dear

A report from the CBI employers' organisation, published in April 1997, highlights the increasing cost of absenteeism to the UK economy. Yet few people see the links between the way that companies treat their staff and the levels of absenteeism.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) announced in April 1997 that "absenteeism" - the non-attendance of workers who are expected to be at work - had cost UK business GBP 12 billion in 1996; an average of GBP 533 for every employee. Just prior to the CBI announcement, the Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) trade union had announced the results of a survey which highlighted the lack of a "feel-good" factor among employees due to increasing job insecurity ("Union survey suggest little 'feel good effect' in reality", MSF press release (8 April 1997)). These kinds of surveys have elements in common, yet few acknowledge or even see what the linkages are.

CBI survey

The CBI survey ("Managing absence - in sickness and health", CBI Report (April 1997)), which was sponsored by BUPA and MCG Consultants, estimates that 187 million working days were lost due to sickness absence in 1996 - an average of 8.4 working days off per employee. This represents 3.7% of total working time in 1996, a rise from estimated figures for 1994. The survey covered 691 organisations with a combined workforce of 1.5 million. Some of the other findings are highlighted below:

Average days off per employee 1996
Public sector Private sector
10.2 7.3
Average days off per employee in private sector industry
Oil and mining 3.3
Construction 4.2
Hotels and leisure 4.6
Utilities 7.7
Chemicals 7.8
Food and drink 7.9
Regional absence per employee (Full-time manual workers)
South 6.5
South East 8.5
Wales 8.8
North West 12.6
Greater London 13.8
Northern Ireland 15.7
Regional absence per employee (Full-time non-manual workers)
North 4.0
South 6.2
East Anglia 7.6
South East 9.3
Yorkshire and Humberside 9.3
East Midlands 9.3
North West 9.5
South West 11.0

Note: The regional and sectoral tables show the three regions or sectors with the highest and lowest absence figures.

While reports such as the CBI survey are useful for highlighting general trends, it should be noted that there are still no accurate measures available to reflect the true extent of absenteeism. Absenteeism continues to rise in the UK, but few are attempting to link the reasons, or the solutions, for this most costly of phenomena.

The main reasons given for absenteeism in the CBI survey are twofold. The first is that the majority of time taken off (98%) was considered by companies to be for genuine reasons of sickness. The second reason given was that staff were taking time off for family responsibilities.

Most companies tend to see surveillance, in one form or another, as the most appropriate way of dealing with absenteeism. The CBI survey highlights that formal notification, discipline, statistics to line managers and teamwork are the most popular policies to deal with absenteeism. But there is a growing body of evidence which highlights that these types of policies are likely only to accentuate the problem.

Derek Burns of MCG consulting group said that "the increase in absenteeism reported among non-manual staff often arises from low morale and motivation, largely caused by uncertainty over job insecurity and lack of investment over staff development [...] in organisations where the workforce is highly motivated, absenteeism can be as low as 1% or 2%".

Common themes that seem to run through reports on absenteeism are insecurity and stress. Insecurity was highlighted by the MSF survey, which found that 37% of respondents said that their jobs had become less secure in the last year, and 30% said that they had become less secure over the last three months. The survey also highlighted insecure occupational categories, industrial sectors and regions:

  • occupations- "health professions" (where 46% responded that their jobs had become less secure) and "other professionals" (42%) were among the most vulnerable occupational groups;
  • industrial sector- the National Health Service (42%) and financial services (52%) were the least secure;
  • regions- Scotland (45%), the North West (41%) and the South East (41%) were the least secure, with all other regions having at least a 30% response rate that jobs had become less secure.

In the increasingly competitive environment of the 1990s, companies' attempts to restructure to enable them to compete better can also have detrimental effects on the companies and their employees. Another recent study ("Delayering managers: Time-space surveillance and its gendered effects", DL and MC Collinson (1997)) shows that the restructuring of companies is having particularly bad effects on staff, increasing both pressures and levels of stress as companies go through "delayering" and cost-cutting exercises etc. Senior management expected staff to work much longer hours and, even if this was not enforced directly, staff felt obliged to do likewise if their managers were working late. For female staff this also often meant that they were not taking their full maternity/holiday entitlement and were working longer hours on returning to work than they anticipated. For men the "macho" culture often meant that managers were increasingly evaluated on their ability and willingness to increase their time, visibility and presence at work. This concurs with the findings of further surveys conducted by MORI that 15% of fathers do not see their children during the week and that over half spend less than five minutes per day with their children.

Reducing absenteeism

The CBI finds that there is generally no correlation between the amount of absenteeism policies used and reduction in absence. In this year's survey, though, it did find that such a correlation exists in those companies which used absence figures in the choice of which employees to make redundant, again emphasising the surveillance and fear element.

The CBI highlights three main ways in which absenteeism might be reduced.

  1. The key to successful absence control is giving responsibility to front-line management to monitor absenteeism.
  2. The introduction of "family-friendly" policies such as flexible leave, childcare support and school term-time working.
  3. Employers should recognise the value of the "knowledge economy" which views people and the skills that they have as an asset requiring investment and forming an important part of the capital of the business.

The first option is probably seen as easiest for most companies to implement, whereas the second and the third, which are likely to be the most effective in the long term, take a great deal of thought and investment.


Absenteeism is indeed costly to the UK economy, but rather than looking to eliminate its causes, companies tend to utilise those methods which may lead to longer-term problems. Closer surveillance and forcing workers to be present within the workplace for longer periods is unlikely to be healthy for most people. The UK is an especially bad example, having the longest working hours in the European Union (UK9702103F).

Instead of looking for "quick-fix" answers, the solution is perhaps already within the grasp of the CBI report - that of treating staff as an asset to be invested in. It is time that companies began to look to themselves for some of the causes and, instead of looking for short-term cost savings, treated staff in a way that actually acknowledged that they are a vital part of the organisation. This would also include recognising that family-friendly policies will help. Companies should remember that healthy workers are more likely to be productive workers. (M W Gilman, IRRU)

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