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Workers are taking fewer sick days

Workers are taking fewer days off sick, with a record 45% having no days off ill at all in 2010, according to research today.

A study by the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) and Westfield Health revealed a steady fall in sickness absence over the past three years, with the average employee taking five days off in 2010 compared with 6.7 days in 2007.

The state of the economy may have played a part in the figures, but the report said the trend started before the recession.

The survey of more than 450 firms found that back pain and other muscular problems remained the main cause of short-term sickness absence last year.

Problems with stress and back pain fell, while two thirds of firms said they were achieving targets on sickness absence.

A significant number of companies were paying for private medical treatment, which the EEF said was set to become a rising trend as the UK recovers from recession.

Early results on the introduction of a "fit note" were mixed, with one in five firms saying it had helped them reduce sickness absence, but others complaining that workers were being signed off unnecessarily.

Professor Sayeed Khan, the EEF's chief medical adviser, said: "The continued downward trend in sickness absence is welcome recognition of efforts by companies and government to get people back to work. In particular, it is striking that the companies who have proactively contacted their GPs to discuss adjusting people's working arrangements have seen the highest level of response.

"It is also clear that doing the basics such as training line managers and GPs in managing sickness absence pays dividends. If we are to see the trend continuing to improve and the economic benefit to the UK economy this brings, it is vital that government continues to fund the training of GPs in health and work issues."

Jill Davies, chief executive of Westfield Health, said: "The workforce is an employer's most valuable asset and the falling sickness absence rates show that the right steps are being taken to continue this positive trend, but there is still plenty to be done."

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "Although this research recognises the efforts made by Government to help people back to work, it also highlights the importance of our review of the current system which was announced earlier this year.

"Too many people have fallen on to a life on benefits because of the failures in the sickness absence system. This isn't fair to the taxpayer, it isn't fair to the individual and it comes at a high cost to employers.

"We all have a stake in reducing sickness absence, but it's not clear who is best placed to take responsibility for this change.

"We are delighted Dame Carol Black and David Frost have agreed to lead this review which will answer these questions and inform Government thinking on how the current system can be changed."