Sick worker
Levels of absence have reached a record low of 2.1% – equivalent to 4.9 days per employee per yearReuters

UK sickness absence levels have hit a record low as workers' mental health improves, according to a manufacturing industry body.

The 2014 Sickness Absence survey, published by the EEF and Jelf Employee Benefits, found that overall levels of absence have reached a record low of 2.1% – equivalent to 4.9 days per employee per year.

But the research also revealed that long term absence has increased, with almost two fifths of companies saying long term absence has increased in the last two years.

"Driving down absence rates, helping more employees return to work earlier and, encouraging their wellbeing is critical for our economy," said Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at EEF.

"But, despite employers increasing investment in managing sickness absence and, providing their employees with more health related benefits, the improvement in overall absence rates has more or less now plateaued.

According to the survey, which questioned 335 companies in Spring, stress and other mental health related disorders have shown the biggest increase in long term absence with just over half of companies reporting it as a cause, an increase of 7% in the last five years.

A fifth of companies cited it as the most common cause, an increase of 4% in the last five years.

But there is increasing evidence that manufacturers are seeing no benefits from the "Fit Note" system, which allows doctors to advise that individuals "may be fit for work" taking into account the doctor's advice, or that they are "not fit for work".

Only 24% of employers believe that the fit note system has resulted in employees returning to work earlier, compared to 40% who said that it had not.

More companies disagree (45%) than agree (16%) that the advice given by GPs about employees' fitness for work has improved. The gap between those who rate the advice positively and those who view it negatively has widened substantially over the past two years.

Focus groups of employers are reporting they are seeing no improvement in return to work under the 'Fit Note' system compared to the old 'Sick Note'.

What is the Fit Note?

The Fit Note replaced the old sick note system in April 2010.

According to the Department for Work and Pensions, doctors issue fit notes to individuals to provide evidence of the advice the doctor has given about the individual's fitness for work.

The fit note allows doctors to advise that individuals "may be fit for work" taking into account the doctor's advice, or that they are "not fit for work".

Workers must give their employer a doctor's 'fit note' (previously called a 'sick note') if they're off sick for more than 7 days in a row (including non-working days).