The survey reveals that while sickness absence remains relatively low, there is growing concern about employees suffering from stress and mental health issues.
The EEF manufacturers’ organisation said its research revealed that only one in ten companies provided training on mental health to managers. The survey involved almost 350 companies employing 90,000 workers.
It found that employers were struggling to tackle mental health issues, which were leading to increases in long-term absence. Two-fifths – 40 per cent – said long-term absence rates were increasing, even though total absence rates were low at just 2.2 per cent .
This represents five days a year per employee on average, although half of workers never take time off sick.
Back pain and musculoskeletal disorders remain the main cause of long-term absence, with stress and mental health disorders the main cause of absence for one in four companies.
This, the survey reveals, has gradually crept up since 2009.
Stress and mental illness is regarded as the most difficult form of absence to make workplace adjustments for, with almost a third of companies saying this is the case.
Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at the EEF, said: “While overall absence levels remain low, there continues to be a marked difference between short and long-term absence which is creeping up.
“Without a renewed effort to tackle its root causes it will continue to act as a drag on the economy and efforts to improve productivity and boost growth.
“Of particular concern is the gradual increase in stress and mental health-related problems over the last five years with which GPs and employers are struggling to deal.
“As a society we can no longer ignore the very real impact of these issues both on the individuals concerned and the wider economy. Whilst employers and GPs appear able to manage other causes of absence they must now be given the tools to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way.”
Prof Khan added: “Driving down absence rates, helping more employees return to work earlier and encouraging their wellbeing is critical for our economy. From now on the focus has to be on reducing long-term absence, which is only going to happen if we up our game.
“This must start by making the ‘Fit Note’ work so that it can make real inroads on delivering the objective of reducing unnecessary sickness absence.”
Prof Khan has been with EEF for more than ten years, influencing workplace health in 6,000 organisations with about a million employees.
Iain Laws, managing director of UK Healthcare at Jelf Employee Benefits, said: “A focus on prevention must become a priority for UK employers, who need to maintain a competitive workforce within an overall population that is both ageing and ailing.
“This is not only essential to tackle absence but to also address the less easily identifiable issue of presentee-ism – reduced job performance resulting from ill health.”
The EEF recommends spending £6 million on the training of all 40,000 UK GPs in Occupational Health. They also seek to allow companies to offset the cost of intervention where they pay for treatment against business costs as an allowable business expense.