Managing Long Term Absence

Our Empactis platform helps businesses to understand the true impact of absence and we consistently find that, even if absence is thought to be consistently captured in HR systems, these systems (or the way they are used) results in significant under reporting (as much as 40%).

The leading Occupational Health Journal, Occupational Health (at Work) publishes this month the first part of research it has done in collaboration with respected academic researchers from the Work Foundation on long term sickness absence.

They start with the clear rationale that much research on sickness absence is flawed because of the poor data sources; they quote Carol Black and David Frost in terms of highlighting that “the provision of accurate, accessible and timely information is the cornerstone of, and is vital for, the success of any absence policy”.

They highlight that many of the “trusted” sources quoted on sickness absence rates (CBI, CIPD ,EEF) rely heavily on questionnaire data completed by HR contacts who aggregate data and rely on record systems that are likely to be flawed in terms of quality and timeliness. They also highlight response rates as often low. Whilst private and public-sector comparisons are widely quoted as having differences, methodological flaws and variations probably mean the true rates are very different. So, they highlight that these surveys may be useful for trend data, but may fail to understand true rates or causes.

This research used information from 900 or so OH professionals and 442 provider organisations – and I was pleased to have opportunity to review and contribute to the survey methodology, which was developed by Professor Stephen Bevan, known for his work in the field of health and work.

Interestingly, over half of OH professionals involved had no access to any sickness absence information. Definitions of long and short-term absence varied (but most organisations defined long term sickness absence (LTSA) as 4 working weeks or 28 calendar days)

Total sickness absence rates in this survey was recorded as 3.5% but noted as likely to be under reported – unsurprisingly MSK and mental health being largest groups for LTSA. Nearly 60% of OH referrals in the sample were for stress, depression or anxiety. Comorbidity (multiple medical conditions) is the main risk factor for longer absence with median LTSA 8-10 weeks (average 54 days).

Although LTSA in national data is ascribed to cause only one third of total lost days, CBI data ascribes 75% of absence costs (and other sources not dissimilar) i.e. smaller numbers of employees involved but higher cost to employer (short term absence causes productivity and quality disruption, but long term gives additional on costs covering and managing cases).

Most survey responders gave examples of cases lasting up to a year off sick, a minority “several years”.

Repeatedly this work and the earlier version on short term sickness highlight lack of real time accurate systems to monitor, case manage and understand root causes, which is a key part of the approach we have developed.