The survey, sponsored by Jelf Employee Benefits, found that although overall sickness absence remains low, at 2.2%, employers have experienced the biggest rise in long-term absence in five years, with two-fifths of companies saying that it has increased in the last two years.
The most common causes of long-term sickness are back problems and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), but mental health and stress are becoming more prevalent. For businesses employing more than 500 people, stress and other mental ill health disorders were ranked as the most common cause of long-term sickness absence.
When it comes to dealing with long-term sickness absence, one-third (33%) of employers rely solely on the NHS to manage absences caused by medical investigations, tests and recovery from surgery.
Almost a third (30%) say they do not have a support system in place to help employees with mental health-related long-term sickness absence. While 52% rely on staff support mechanisms to deal with mental ill health, only 10% of employers provide their managers with mental health training.
Just 18% monitor the economic cost of absence, and 70% don’t measure the return on investment for the health and wellbeing benefits they offer.
EEF chief medical adviser Sayeed Khan said the increase in stress and mental health problems is of “particular concern”.
“As a society we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues, both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy,” he added. “While employers and GPs appear able to manage other causes of absence they must now be given the tools to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way.”
EEF said the government’s Fit for Work service will be critical in reducing long-term absence, but the survey shows employers agree the government’s older fit note scheme isn't working. Almost half (43%) said the fit note hasn’t helped absent employees return to work earlier and 29% say it has made no difference enabling earlier returns to work.
The survey also found 65% of employers in the sector are setting absence targets. Jelf Employee Benefits managing director, UK healthcare and group risk Iain Laws encouraged organisations to track sickness absence.
He said: “Reliable, easy to use, absence recording systems empower employers and managers to provide the support to employees to minimise absence and manage longer-term or complex cases. This in turn can have a positive impact on benefit costs as early detection and action often mean lower treatment costs as well.”
HR magazine is holding a live HR Lunchtime Debate broadcast on building the business case for wellbeing on 24 June 2015, in conjunction with Unum.
The debate will explore why wellbeing often isn't viewed as a boardroom issue and features Matt Freeland, senior HR director (European snacks category supply chain) at PepsiCo, Stephen Bevan, director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation, Anthony Douglas, CEO at Cafcass and Joanne Abate, assistant VP global health management at Unum.