Close this search box.

Sickness Absence Rates in the UK Hit 10-Year High

How do employers deal with high sickness absence rates?

According to new survey findings from the CIPD and Simplyhealth (2023), UK employees were absent for 7.8 days on average over the past year, the highest level reported in over a decade and two days more than the pre-pandemic sickness absence rate of 5.8 days.

With the data from this survey showing that record numbers of people are going off sick, this article considers mindsets and actions that employers can adopt to help reduce or even reverse this trend, with a particular focus on stress-related absences.

Stress-Related Absence

Within the CIPD and Simplyheath report, stress was found to be a significant factor for both short and long-term absence, with over 76% of respondents reporting stress-related absence in their organisation in the last year.

Heavy workloads remained by far the most common cause of stress-related absence (67%), followed by management style (37%).

These figures highlight that it is essential for line managers to have the skills and confidence to support employee wellbeing and mental health in the workplace. Line managers are responsible for the health and safety of their team, and this includes ensuring that they are not negatively affected by work-related stressors. Certain levels of pressure are of course normal and helpful, but it is a manager’s role to be vigilant for when the balance is tipped to excessive levels.

Preventative Measures

As we know, prevention is better than cure, and therefore managers should be proactive in developing and maintaining strong working relationships with their team members. In doing so, managers are much more likely to be able to spot any potential wellbeing concerns at the early stages, giving them the valuable opportunity to intervene early to prevent health issues from starting or escalating.

In taking the time to get to know their employees, managers have the benefit of being able to notice changes in behaviour, seek to understand the underlying reason, and identify whether there is cause for concern. Managers should put aside pre-judgements or assumptions about an employee’s level of stress, and instead be genuinely curious to understand how work matters are impacting the individual and how they can help.

By carefully developing and nurturing an open, honest, and supportive working relationship, employees are far more likely to be forthcoming and confide in their manager about their wellbeing, as opposed to struggling in silence for fear of judgement or repercussions. It should be acknowledged, that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario; we are all different, so managers need to get to know their employees individually and adapt their approach, to get the best out of the working relationship.

At RELA, we believe that, rather than the common perception that an employee works for their manager, it should in fact be the case that the manager works for their employees. By changing the predominant direction of accountability in this way, it puts much more of an emphasis on managers to invest their time being interested in their employees’ workplace wellbeing. A great manager will care about their direct reports and their happiness in the workplace and not expect this to be reciprocated.

It is appreciated that seeking to achieve these relationship ideals with each employee takes time and effort; time that we often don’t have, or perceive not to have, but not doing so is often short-sighted.

Stress can place immense demands on employees’ physical and mental health, affect their performance at work and relationships with colleagues, and as the CIPD report has highlighted, is a major cause of both short-term and long-term absence. These consequences, as well as any subsequent resignations, will likely take much more of a manager’s time and energy to address, than promoting and fostering a supportive working environment from the outset.

The words "Mental Health" shown on Scrabble tiles

Management of Sickness Absence

It is widely recommended that employers have a sickness absence policy in place, which provides a framework to support employees who are unable to work due to illness and provides guidance for managers in assisting them back to work as soon as possible.

Additionally, return to work discussions are a key tool to utilise in effectively managing sickness absence. For some managers, a meeting of this kind may seem like a pointless ‘tick box exercise’, particularly if an employee has been absent from work for a short period of time with a minor illness, but return to work discussions encourage dialogue and open communication, which will likely lead more positive outcomes.

To give an example, a manager relayed to me recently that they held a return-to-work meeting with their employee who had been off work briefly due to a cold. They initially did not see much value in holding the meeting, but they wanted to follow policy. It transpired that within the meeting the employee confided in their manager that they were also struggling with work-related stress. This proved to be an eye-opener for the manager, in that if they hadn’t bothered with that return-to-work meeting, the opportunity for early intervention and support could have been missed, and events may have unfolded quite differently.

Another common misconception is that employees on long-term sickness absence, particularly if the reason relates to their mental health, should be left to recover with minimal contact from their manager. Managers often adopt this approach with good intentions, perceiving that making contact could negatively impact the employee’s recovery, but it is in fact the case that for absences due to mental health or workplace stress, the employee’s condition may become worse through lack of contact, potentially extending their absence period or leading to further periods off work.

It is for this reason that managers should maintain regular contact with employees who are off work, agreeing with them an appropriate level of communication and keeping this under review, to ensure the employee does not feel isolated, ignored or anxious about returning.

Making Reasonable Adjustments

Lastly, it is important to mention the benefits of accommodating and/or offering reasonable adjustments, whether this be following early signs of a wellbeing concern or when an employee is returning to work, or anytime in-between.

Reasonable adjustments are often only thought about when it is legally necessary (i.e., in relation to a declared or suspected disability), which can be a missed opportunity. Making agreed adaptations is a proven way to improve an employee’s performance, engagement, and retention. The potential positive long-term outcomes of a reasonable adjustment often outweigh any short-term inconvenience (whether perceived or actual) to the company.

Wellbeing should be a priority

Of course, not all sickness absences are work-related or within the manager’s power to prevent; however, as the findings from the CIPD and Simplyhealth report (2023) highlight, employers need to keep employee wellbeing at the top of their agenda and consider whether they are doing all they can to effectively managing the main risks of work to people’s health. The message needs to come from senior levels of leadership that supporting employee wellbeing is a priority in the job role of line managers.


CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work Report 2023: CIPD report 2023 | Simplyhealth

We can help you

If you require assistance creating or updating your company’s wellbeing strategy or sickness absence policy, or your company could benefit from training managers in both pro-active and reactive methods of supporting their employees’ wellbeing don’t hesitate to get in contact.

Picture credit from Unsplash: total-shape-Ianw4RdVuoo-unsplash-scaled.jpg

Share This Article
Read More Articles
Any questions? Contact us

Appointments are available by telephone or via video call, so no matter where you are in England or Wales we can assist you.

The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

Solicitor in Eastleigh | Solicitor in Salisbury | Solicitor Isle of Wight