Managers are sometimes sceptical about the reasons staff give for taking days off and argue that personal problems and stress are far more prevalent than workers are prepared to admit.
In a survey published today, the Industrial Society reports that the national absenteeism rate is 3.97 per cent for UK-owned organisations while the figure for Japanese companies is 2.35 per cent. The study, Wish You Were Here, calculated the percentage of working days lost through absence and involved the first comparison between UK and Japanese-owned organisations.
The highest rate was found in the public sector at 4.57 per cent, with health showing the worst record of 5.94 per cent. In the private sector, sickness records were at their worst in the engineering and vehicles sector, at 5.46 per cent. About 95 per cent of the 600 respondents who give performance pay had a low absence rate.
However, overall absences through sickness have decreased since the society's previous research in 1987 which showed a rate of 5.05 per cent.
Today's report pointed out that Wales showed the highest absence rate of 5.77 per cent, up from 3.89 per cent in 1987. London, the second-worst area, also showed a marked increase from 3.31 per cent to 4.97 per cent. The areas with the lowest absence rates were the Home Counties (2.98 per cent) and East Anglia (3.37 per cent).
Japanese companies have smaller working groups and are more likely to communicate absence rates to employees on notice boards, the study says. Nearly four out of five Japanese firms ask job applicants about absenteeism - compared to just over half of all UK organisations.
A total of 55 per cent of Japanese companies also interview employees after every absence, irrespective of length - compared to only 38 per cent of UK organisations. Of all companies with absence rates of 3 percent or less, 94 per cent sought information about previous attendance records when recruiting.
Jean Balcombe, the society's absenteeism specialist, said British companies could not afford to ignore the example of their Japanese competitors, who monitored and communicated with their employees more thoroughly. The main reason employees give for absence is colds and influenza, followed by stomach upset and food poisoning. However, when asked to rank what they considered to be the true reasons, employers put stress, emotional and personal problems second after colds. Other reasons employers gave for staff absence included people using up their permitted annual period of sick leave, sickness in the family, time off for child care, workplace accidents, alcohol and drug problems.
Recession seems to have led to an upward as well as downward movement in absenteeism. Managers report increased stress-induced absence, as well as people taking less time off because of the fear of redundancy.
The latest edition of the Government's Social Trends showed that the UK had the second worst sickness record in Europe. While British industry lost 2.7 per cent of the workng week through illness, the Netherlands lost 4.6 per cent.
Wish You Were Here; the Industrial Society; 48 Bryantson Square, London W1H 7LN; pounds 45.