Britain's £32bn-a-year absence problem

Apparently we Brits take twice as much unscheduled time off as Americans. What do their employers know that ours don't?

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Given the unusual distribution of bank holidays this month (apparently there's a wedding on Friday, you probably won't have heard about it), it wouldn't be entirely surprising if employers see a spike in sickies this week. But tempting though the prospect of a 11-day break must be, it would only be compounding what's already an expensive problem for UK plc: according to a new report by PwC, absenteeism is now costing us £32bn a year. If we want to bring our absence rates down to US and Asian levels, PwC reckons the approach needs to be a mixture of carrot and stick...

All told, the report (which studied absence rates at 2,000 companies worldwide, including 300 in the UK) found that Brits take a median of 10 days unscheduled absence a year; 80% of this was due to sickness, while things like jury service and compassionate leave account for the rest. (You may not be surprised to learn that the public sector average was much higher than the private sector average - 12.2 compared to 9.7). Given the average UK salary is about £25k a year, that extrapolates to a total bill for UK plc of £32bn a year. Just what we need at the moment.

The other notable point is that the UK absence rate is not only higher than the overall average for Western Europe (of 9.7 days); it's about twice as much as the US rate of 5.5 days (in Asia it's even lower, at 4.5 days). Since US workers tend to work longer hours and have fewer holidays, this seems counter-intuitive. But PwC has come up with a few possible explanations. It suggests US companies may be better at keeping staff engaged, and that they're better at investing in the health of their staff (gyms in the office, for instance). But it reckons they're hotter on absence policies too, so the consequences of pulling a sickie are clearer.

Not all this sick leave is unnecessary, of course (as anyone with carrier monkey-esque small children will attest). And it's arguably better for sick employees not to come into work, so they don't infect the rest of your staff. But a problem of this magnitude demands attention. Efforts to boost engagement and improve the health and wellbeing of your staff might seem expensive in the short term, but it'll probably save you money in the long run. And if nothing else, it makes sense to make it very clear what's acceptable and what's not. Taking three days off to work on your red, white and blue bunting definitely falls into the latter category, for example.

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