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CIPD: Stress is the most common reason for staff absence

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Stress has become the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees, according to the CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey, published yesterday.

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).

For manual workers, stress is now level with acute medical conditions and has overtaken musculoskeletal problems to become the top cause of long-term absence. While among non-manual staff, stress has moved ahead of acute medical conditions.

There is an increase in stress-related absence among public sector organisations, with 50% of these respondents reporting an increase. Public sector respondents identify the amount of organisational change and restructuring as the number one cause of stress at work, highlighting the impact of public sector cuts to jobs, pension benefits and pay freezes.

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%).

More than two-fifths (43%) of public sector organisations report they will be making redundancies over the next six months (compared with 17% in the private sector and 24% of non-profits).

Jill Miller, an adviser at the CIPD, said: "The survey this year shows that stress is for the first time the number one cause of long-term sickness absence, highlighting the heightened pressure many people feel under in the workplace as a result of the prolonged economic downturn.

"Stress is a particular challenge in the public sector where the sheer 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.

"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. They also need to be able to spot the early signs of people being under excessive pressure or having difficulty coping at work and to provide appropriate support."

Absence levels are lowest among manufacturing and production organisations at 5.7 days per employee per year (6.9 days in 2010) while among non-profit organisations absence has increased to 8.8 days (8.3 days in 2010) and more than a quarter (28%) of employers report an increase in the number of people coming to work ill in the last 12 months.

Organisations that were expecting redundancies in the coming six months were more likely to report an increase in presenteeism (32% compared with 27% of those who were not expecting to make further redundancies). They were also less likely to report they had not noticed an increase (48% compared with 66%) and less certain (20% report they didn't know if there had been an increase compared with 7% of those not making redundancies).

Organisations that had noted an increase in presenteeism over the past year were more likely to report an increase in stress-related absence over the same period (49% compared to 33% of those who did not report an increase in people coming to work ill).

But, encouragingly, more than a quarter of organisations (29%) report they have increased their focus on employee wellbeing and health promotion as a result of the economic context. Over two-fifths of the public sector report an increase in focus compared with just over one-fifth of the private sector.