Sick leave falls but stress rises

People are taking less sick leave - but the very pressures that make them struggle into the office are creating problems for the future as stress becomes...

People are taking less sick leave - but the very pressures that make them struggle into the office are creating problems for the future as stress becomes one of the biggest causes of work illness, writes John Kavanagh.

This emerges from new studies which call on employers to recognise stress as an issue and take steps to ease it.

"Over the last decade absence has been slashed as part of a business drive for better cost management," says John Cridland, director of human resources policy at employers body the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) .

"Absence among non-manual employees is at the lowest level for five years, falling from 7.6 to 6.5 days in the last year."

The need to focus on stress was underlined by Dudley Lusted, a director of private health company PPP healthcare, which sponsored the survey.

"It is time to get a better grip on longer-term absence and stress-related problems," he says. "Tackling their underlying causes and supporting people with early access to medical and psychological care are key to achieving the 5.3 days' absence levels attained by the best-performing companies."

In IT, fitting people in the right jobs is also important, says John Eary, skills services manager at the National Computing Centre.

"Some programmers are only at their best when faced with the challenge and focus of tight project deadlines, and will work round the clock, because they see it as a creative process," he says. "But others can't handle that and prefer to be maintenance programmers with regular hours.

"Support can be stressful too. People can be overwhelmed with user demand, suffer abuse and see themselves as having low standing in the IT department,"adds Eary.

"There's a diversity of jobs in IT and it's important to make sure you get the one that suits you."

Eary backs the implication of the CBI survey that people might be getting more stressed but taking fewer days off because of fears about getting behind in their work.

The CBI conclusions are also confirmed by a separate study by the Institute of Personnel and Development, which shows that stress is now the biggest reason for sick days among white-collar staff, after minor complaints such as colds.

"Changes in morale or workload or both are cited as the main reasons for absence," says the institute's employer relations adviser, Diane Sinclair.

More than a third of employers now offer stress counselling, the survey shows. Sinclair says companies should also look at "more flexible family-friendly policies".

The need here is also highlighted by a third study by Aon Consulting, which shows that 61% of staff believe their employers do not recognise a need to balance work and home life.

This survey also puts stress at the top of the list of issues, and calls for flexible working policies based on people's private lives.

"Organisations that demonstrate commitment to employees will win the battle to attract and retain skilled and committed staff," says Aon managing director Patrick Carter.

Studies by the Health and Safety Executive, which show that stress is a serious problem leading to physical and mental illness and dependence on alcohol, have led the organisation to prepare action. Options being considered range from an employer's guide to a code of practice and even legislation.

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