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Stress-related absence has increased over past year, according to CIPD/Simplyhealth statistics

Stress levels among UK employees have soared over the past year, giving rise to long- term absence across all sectors.

Over a third (35%) of employers have reported stress-related absence has increased over the past year and is the main cause of persistently high levels of long-term public-sector absence, according to the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth statistics.

The survey found 73% of manual and 79% of non-manual public-sector employers rate stress as a top-five common cause of absence. This compares with an average across all sectors of 51% and 63% respectively (manufacturing and production: 35% and 50%, private sector services: 48% and 60%, and non-profit: 61% and 68%).

The survey also reveals over half (56%) rated organisational change/restructuring as a top-three cause of work-related stress. This compares to an average across all sectors of 39% (manufacturing and production: 31%, private-sector services: 34%, and non-profit: 36%).

Average absence as a result is three days higher in the public sector compared with private sector services, at 9.6 days per employee per year compared with 6.6 days, and remains much lower in other sectors: 6.9 days in manufacturing and production and 8.3 days in the non-profit sector. Even when the high level of non-profit sector absence is taken into consideration, the average level of absence throughout the UK workforce is still almost two days less than the public sector, at 7.7 days per employee. The median cost of public-sector absence is £889 per employee per year compared to a median across all sectors of £600 per employee per year (manufacturing and production: £400, private sector services: £600, and non-profit: £600).

Jill Miller, CIPD adviser, said: "The survey shows why closing the gap between public and private-sector absence has proved so difficult for successive governments. Compared with the private sector, more public-sector employees are in challenging public-facing roles such as social work, policing, teaching and nursing where they often have to deal with people in difficult and emotionally-charged situations, putting pressure on their time and resilience. In addition, organisational change and restructuring is cited more commonly by public-sector employers than those in other sectors as a major cause of stress, which will only increase in the near future as a consequence of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review."

The Absence Survey shows that public-sector employers are taking steps to reduce the higher levels of stress prevalent in their sector, through interventions like staff surveys, flexible working options, training in stress management for managers and staff and stress risk assessments.

Helen Dickinson, head of people, Simplyhealth, commented: "It’s good to see that the public and private sectors are putting practices in place to help reduce stress and subsequent sickness absence. In difficult financial times, finding the budget for this may be a concern but there are a range of relatively inexpensive methods companies can introduce such as workshops to help employees manage stress, one-to-one coaching, plus advice on how diet and exercise can help reduce stress. Ensuring approaches to tackling stress are integrated into the organisation's health and wellbeing strategy is crucial to helping employees through difficult times and ensuring that stress related sickness absence doesn’t continue to rise."