Decline in employee absence and impact of the recession

The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development published a survey on absenteeism in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2009. The report found that absence among employees had declined in 2009, while the costs associated with employee absence had slightly risen. It also revealed that a range of illnesses, including work-related stress, accounted for employee absence, and that the effects of the recession had toughened employers’ attitudes to absence management.

About the survey

In the summer of 2009, the UK Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) issued its annual survey on absence management (638Kb PDF). The survey is the 10th wave carried out by CIPD, resulting in a data series in which rates of absenteeism of previous years may be compared between different sectors of the UK economy.

The 2009 survey involved sending 12,015 online survey questionnaires to ‘people management specialists’ in the UK. The survey generated 642 responses. It included 36 questions that dealt with the incidence of absenteeism and the various aspects of managing it. The average size of participating organisations was 2,974 employees. In terms of response rates, 26.4% of responses were from the public sector, 43.2% were from the private services sector, 10.65% were from non-profit organisations and 19.7% were from public sector employers.

Main findings

Regarding employee absence and its management in the UK in 2009, the survey reported the following findings.

  • The average annual level of absence in the UK fell from 8.0 days per employee in 2008 to 7.4 days per employee in 2009. This decline was particularly marked in the private services sector, in which the lowest rates of employee absence were found: in 2009, the rate of absence stood at 6.4 days per employee a year, while in 2008 it amounted to 7.2 days. The highest rates of employee absence were found in the public and non-profit organisation sectors. The absenteeism rates in these sectors in 2009 were, respectively, 9.7 and 9.4 days per employee a year. The 2008 figures for these sectors stood at 9.8 and 8.5 days per employee a year, respectively.
  • The survey found that the average cost of absence per employee a year slightly rose from GBP 666 (€783 as at 1 July 2009) in 2008 to GBP 692 (€813) in 2009. In the public sector, the average cost of absence per employee was highest, with a 2009 figure of GBP 784 (€922) per employee. However, this marked a decline from the 2008 figure of GBP 906 (€1,065) per employee. In the private services sector, the figure for 2009 was GBP 666 (€783) per employee, compared to GBP 663 (€779) in 2008.
  • Minor illnesses such as sickness, flu and colds were found to be the primary cause of absence for both manual and non-manual workers. For manual workers, the second highest cause of short-term absence from work was musculoskeletal conditions, whereas for non-manual workers it was work-related stress. Furthermore, work-related stress was found to be the primary cause of long-term absence among non-manual employees.
  • The survey also included a section on the effects of the economic recession on employee absence rates. According to the survey findings, just over 40% of employers stated that the recession had increased the focus of their organisation on reducing absence levels and costs. Some 21% of employers indicated that they had noticed an increase in employees coming to work ill in the previous 12-month period. A further 20% of employers also reported an increase in mental health and anxiety problems among their workforce in the 12-month period preceding the survey.


The findings of the CIPD survey raise several interesting issues regarding the incidence of absence in UK workplaces and its appropriate management. First, the divergence of rates between the public and private services sectors is significant. Depending on one’s perspective, this could either be attributable to more stringent private sector absence management practices or greater inefficiency in public sector approaches to the issue. The prominence of work-related stress as a cause of both short and long-term absence will also be noted by policymakers. This finding may also be of interest to the European-level social partners, given the amount of work that they have accomplished on the topic of work-related stress in recent years (EU0902019I; see also the EWCO survey data report on Work-related stress in European countries).

Finally, the survey findings demonstrate that the recession has both toughened employers’ attitudes to the absence of employees and increased the rate of mental health problems among employees; this will be of great interest to those concerned about the effects of the economic crisis on workplace health and safety practice.

Thomas Prosser, IRRU, University of Warwick

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