Sharp rise in sickness absence

2012 saw record levels of sickness absenteeism in Belgium. The yearly report of HR services company SD Worx shows that over the last decade there has been a steady increase in the number, frequency and duration of sickness absences, and the annual national average for working hours lost as a result now stands at 4.7% of all hours worked – or an average of 12 working days per person. The study’s authors say that a new, more flexible career model may help reduce work-related illness.

Current situation

Sickness absence in Belgium has increased continuously since 2002. More employees take more sick leave more often, and in 2012 total absence due to sickness was 4.7% of all hours worked. This translates to an annual average of more than twelve working days’ absence per person. Short term sickness absence – less than one month – was around 2.4%. Of particular concern is the increase in long term sickness absence – between one and 12 months – from 1.6% in 2002 to 2.4% in 2012 (employees ill for longer than one year are seen as ‘invalid’ in the Belgian social security system). In 2012, it concerns 270,000 persons (RIZIV), 5% of the total labour population.

There are various causes behind the increase in long term sickness leave. The proportion of the labour force aged 50 and over is increasing because of the ageing population. Other possible explanations are difficult working conditions, motivation problems, stress, burn-out or an increase in physical complaints.

The research and development section of HR services company SD Worx has published its annual report, Out of the office: Absenteeism 2012. The study found that a large number of long-term absentees have mentally given up because they feel underestimated and can no longer identify with their organisation.

Table 1: Sickness absence 2002–2012, % of labour volume
 

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Short term

2.2

2.2

2.1

2.2

2.2

2.3

2.4

2.4

2.4

2.4

2.4

Long term

1.6

1.5

1.4

1.4

1.5

1.6

1.5

1.8

2.0

2.2

2.3

Total

3.8

3.7

3.6

3.7

3.8

3.9

3.9

4.2

4.4

4.7

4.7

Source: SD Worx

Sickness absence by sector and company size

The absence data show marked differences between sectors and by company size. Absenteeism is highest in the non-profit sector where blue-collar workers had taken an average of 72 hours’ sick leave in 2012. For white-collar workers, average sickness absence was 49 hours. In industry, blue-collar workers took an average 58 hours of sick leave and white-collar workers in the same sector only 31 hours.

Sickness absences are particularly high in the health services and social services sectors, in occupations that involve care for children, young people and the disabled and elderly. SD Worx researchers comment that these are demanding roles and such workers have high levels of responsibility and need to work at speed and under pressure, and yet have only limited autonomy and must comply with many procedures and regulations.

Table 2: Sickness absence by sector, 2012 (no. of days)
 

Blue-collar workers

White-collar workers

Industrial activities

7.9

4.2

Profit services

n.a.

5.7

Non-profit services

9.8

6.7

Source: SD Worx

Large organisations have particularly high sickness absence rates. In SMEs with fewer than 20 employees, sick leave is less than 4%, and this figure increases steadily with the size of the organisation. In companies with more than 1,000 employees, the average sickness rate 5.5%.

Figure: Sickness absence by size of organisation, % of total labour volume

be1307011i.tmp00.jpg

Source: SD Worx

Conclusions

The researchers suggest that new, more flexible career models are needed. In the current career model, employees have an extremely high workload between the ages of 30 and 40, and this leads to high fall-out during the final working years of many people. The SD Worx study suggests that the limits of this ‘squeezing career model’ have been reached.

Instead, researchers propose solutions such as the increased use of part-time employment or a lower working rhythm for older workers.

Caroline Vermandere, HIVA KU Leuven

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