EU institutions must play 'key role' in reducing workplace absenteeism

Action to help people stay in work will become even more of a priority as the pension age rises and work-related stress increases, warns Linda McAvan.

By Linda McAvan MEP

26 Feb 2014

There is no single reason why people miss work. Minor or chronic illness, depression and stress, caring for a sick or elderly relative, workplace bullying and bereavement are all part of the picture.

However, as the pension age increases and people live longer, a larger proportion of sick leave will be attributable to chronic disease and disability.

Actions by employers and governments to help people stay in work will become even more of a priority. Assisting people with a chronic condition to remain in the workplace benefits not only the individual and their family but also the public purse; reducing disability pay-outs and returning informal carers to work.

There is no doubt that the current economic crisis has put increased pressure on workers. [pullquote]Job insecurity and reorganisation are common causes of work-related stress and according to UK government estimates, almost a quarter of Britain's major employers now recruit staff on ‘zero-hours’ contracts that keep workers on standby and deny them regular hours[/pullquote].

Nurses, teachers and care workers are hired on flexible contract terms as the number of public sector services contracted out to private providers increases. These are occupations with already high levels of reported work-related stress.

On top of that, exposure to physical hazards is as high as it was 20 years ago in Europe. Workplace injuries are still common with over two-fifths of workers reporting being in tiring and painful positions for at least a quarter of their time.

Repetitive strain injury, caused by working at an assembly line, at a supermarket checkout or even typing at a computer, is on the increase.

Companies operating in Europe face pressures to cut costs and increase productivity. Instilling good management with regards to good workplace management could go some way in helping companies achieve those goals.

Company leaders need to take stock of the demographic make-up of their workforce, identify key risk areas and respond accordingly with changes to their current practices. Managers across the company also need to be made aware of the key workplace triggers of health and psychological problems as well as being trained in how to identify symptoms and how to respond.

Numerous studies have tried to put a cost against workplace absenteeism; taking into account both the direct and indirect costs. Apart from wages, there is pay for replacement-workers, poor quality of goods and services due to understaffing and/or fatigue and poor morale among other employees who have to pick up the extra work.

So what is the actual cost of sick days, and more importantly, who bears it? A report by The Economist Intelligence Unit discusses the biggest causes of sick leave in Europe; examines how sick leave cover is split between the employee, the employer and the state; and considers how both policymakers and businesses are working to prevent workplace absenteeism.

The proportion of sick leave benefits that is paid for by employees, employers and governments in different countries can vary significantly. In Germany, Denmark, Austria and Belgium, for example, the burden on employers is considerable. Elsewhere, including in the UK and Ireland, employees may have to rely on the state, and ultimately their families.

Better information-sharing between European countries could help identify best practice. National governments in Europe are unlikely to give up control of sick leave regulation. A key role for the EU, then, is to build systems that allow for comparisons between national systems, which would help national policymakers identify and pursue best practice.

It is important too that we seek the patient perspective to this issue. So, I am delighted that the European Federation of Neurological Associations is taking a lead in coordinating this event.

Linda McAvan is co-hosting an event in the European parliament on Wednesday 19 February with fellow MEP, Marian Harkin and Francisco Alvarez, from the European commission's DG Employment that will present and debate the findings of a new Economist Intelligence Unit report on workplace absenteeism entitled ‘Out of Office!