20 things about absence and health in 20 years

After 20 years of Health and well-being at work surveys, the CIPD reflects on what's changed - and what's stayed the same - over the years

In 2000, when the CIPD launched its first ‘Employee Absence’ report, the world of work was a very different place. Employer attitudes and policy around people’s health were also very different. Comparing the findings from our 2000 survey with our 2020 edition shines a fascinating light on how employer practice has evolved during that period.

Here are 20 things that have changed – or stayed the same – in the past 20 years:

1. ‘Health and well-being’ is now a concept: In 2000, ‘well-being’ wasn’t discussed at work and employers focused on the much narrower management of ‘health and safety’. Since then, employee ‘health and well-being’ has risen sharply up the workplace agenda.

2. Organisations can enhance employee well-being: Today, employers are encouraged to optimise people’s health and well-being rather then merely reduce the risk of injury and ill health, as captured in World Health Organisation’s principle: ‘Health is a complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'.

3. More responsibility on employers: There’s now much more expectation on employers to support people’s health. The workplace can improve the quality of people’s lives and their health, thereby reducing the pressure on health services.

4. The importance of ‘good work’: There’s now recognition that good work can be good for people’s health, and a far-reaching public policy agenda aims to provide good work for UK employees.

5. Mental health is now a key concern: In 2000, our absence survey didn’t even include poor mental health as a potential cause of sickness absence. In 2020, mental ill health (such as anxiety and depression) is the top cause of long-term employee absence and 60% of people professionals say reported common mental health conditions have increased in their organisation.

6. Stress is still far too widespread: Our 2020 survey finds stress is a major cause of short- and long-term absence, and 37% say work-related stress has increased. Twenty years ago, stress was the second main reason for absence among non-manual workers.

7. Absence levels have dropped dramatically: In 2000, we reported an average sickness absence rate equivalent to 9.3 days per employee per year. In 2020, it stands at 5.8 days.

8. Can or should absence levels be reduced further? We asked this question of HR in 2000 and the overwhelming majority (82%) said ‘yes’, not surprising given the then much higher absence rate. Today, we’re concerned the historically low absence level could be masking ill health through unhealthy working practices like presenteeism.

9. ‘Presenteeism’ didn’t exist as a concept in 2000: Today, nearly nine in ten (89%) report people coming in to work when they are unwell.

10. ‘Leaveism’ was also unheard of in 2000: In 2020, our findings show that nearly three-quarters (73%) of people professionals have seen a form of it, such as people working when they should be on holiday.

11. There’s more expectation on managers to manage absence: However, the level of training they receive hasn’t changed much. In 2000, 46% of organisations trained managers in absence-handling; today 56% do so for short-term absence.

12. More employers use return-to-work interviews: In 2000 return-to-work interviews was only the 11th most common absence management tool (23% of organisations); our 2020 survey finds they are the top method of managing short- and long-term absence (75% and 79%).

13. Trigger mechanisms are now widely used: In 2020, trigger mechanisms are the second most popular tool to review attendance but they weren’t a feature for most employers in managing absence 20 years ago.

14. Occupational health (OH) is still very important: In 2000, OH was the favoured approach to deal with longer-term absences; in 2020, at least six in ten cite the importance of OH involvement.

15. Better work-life balance policies still needed: In 2000, over a quarter (27%) ranked ‘home/family responsibilities’ as a leading cause of absence. Today, around the same proportion (24%) cite caring responsibilities for children as a top reason for short-term absence.

16. Technology now looms large: Our 2020 findings indicate technology is seen as a double-edged sword: most believe it has both negative and positive effects on well-being. By far the most negative impact is the inability to switch off out of work hours (86%).

17. The workforce is ageing: Employers should now be much better at supporting people with a disability and/or a long-term health condition; for example, by providing more flexibility, reskilling people and offering effective support pathways.

18. CIPD now has ‘Chartered’ status: In 2000 the then ‘Institute of Personnel and Development’ was granted a Royal Charter; today we’re known simply as the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.

19. A growing membership to make a difference: In 2000 we had around 100,00 members. Today, we have a worldwide community of more than 150,000 – signficantly increasing the positive difference we can make to create healthy workplaces and achieve our purpose of championing better work and working lives.

20. Employer support for employee health and well-being has come a long way in 20 years: However, there’s still a way to go before organisations and employees can fully realise the benefits of a healthy working-age population. In particular, we need more investment in training and support for line managers to support people on a day-to-day basis.

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