Short term spike in absence rates but long term trend remains downward

absenceAbsence rates dues to illness or injury for UK workers rose by 7 percent in 2018 to an average of 4.4 working days according to new figures, published by the Office for National Statistics. During the full year, people took 141.4 million sick days compared with 131.5 million in 2017, when the figure reached its lowest since records began. The long term trend remains positive despite last year’s spike.The rate of absence from work due to sickness in people in the UK with no long-term health problems has halved in the past two decades according to the government data.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said minor illnesses were the most common cause of absences when all groups of people were taken into account in 2018, accounting for more than a quarter of the more than 141m days missed.

The four most common reasons for sickness absence in 2018 were minor illnesses such as coughs and colds (27.2 percent of days lost); musculoskeletal problems (19.7 percent); other reasons including accidents, diabetes, infectious diseases and poisonings (13.7 percent) and mental health conditions including stress and depression (12.4 percent).

The sickness absence rate was higher for women (2.5 percent of working hours) than men (1.6 percent of working hours). However, men were more likely to take time off for a musculoskeletal problem or minor illness than women.

When comparing reasons given for sickness absence in the public sector and private sector, mental health conditions were reported more frequently in the public sector (10.2 percent absences compared with 8.1 percent of absences in the private sector). The ONS claims these figures must be seen in the context of the likelihood of worse sick pay provisions in the private sector.

Workers in caring, leisure and other service occupations had the highest sickness absence rate at 2.9 percent in 2018. In contrast, those in managerial and senior roles had the lowest sickness absence rate at 1.3 percent.

Among those with no long-term health condition, the absence rate – the number of hours lost as a percentage of the total number worked – has fallen from 2.2 percent to 1.1 percent. For those with long-term health conditions, it stood at 4.4 percent last year – a little more than half the 7 percent figure seen in 1997 but slightly higher than the lowest recorded: 3.9 percent in 2017.

Matt Weston, the managing director of the recruitment firm Robert Half, said the figures provided a “key insight into the wellbeing of the UK workforce and the potential for presenteeism instead of productivity and engagement at work. Our recent research revealed that more than one in 10 UK employees are unhappy at work, with many finding their job stressful and reporting dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. Sickness and absences at work are one of the indicators to employee wellbeing.”