NEWS: Days lost to sickness in UK lowest since records began

UK workers are taking the lowest number of sick days on record, but the new figures hide a ‘sting in the tail’ for health and productivity, commentators have warned.

Latest ONS figures reveal that UK workers took on average 4.1 sickness absence days in 2017 – almost half the number of days since records began in 1993 when people took on average 7.2 days.

As a whole, days lost in the UK due to sickness absence have fallen from 178 to 131 million over the last 24 years.

But far from being a sign of economic gain for firms, the figures indicate an increase in presenteeism, where people go to work even though they are ill, bringing a drain on productivity and a risk to health, say experts.

Women went off sick for minor illnesses comparatively more than men in 2017 (38.5% compared with 32.7%) according to ONS. Photograph: iStock

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, told the Independent the figures painted an ‘unreal’ picture of the state of workers’ health: “If it was really a drop in sickness absence rates, you would have a productivity rise. And we haven’t seen a productivity rise in years.”

He added that coming in when ill had a doubly negative impact. “Say you have the flu, but you’re afraid of staying off for four or five days. So you turn up and infect everyone – but you’re also not doing anything.”

Sickness absence rates have been falling since 1999. Since the economic downturn of 2008, rates in the UK have fallen by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9% in 2017.

Of the sick days that were taken in 2017, more than a quarter (26.2%) were for minor ailments like coughs and colds, which adds up to 34.3 million days per year, said the ONS.

The number of younger workers aged 25 to 34 reporting mental health conditions as the cause of sickness absence also rose from 7.2% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2017, an increase of 2.4 percentage points.

The ONS said there was also a ‘divide’ in the data between the sexes, with women more prone to minor illnesses (38.5% compared with 32.7%) and men tending to experience more sickness absence due to musculoskeletal conditions (28% compared with 18.4%).

Jim Hillage, director of employment policy research at the Institute for Employment Studies, blogged that work culture, the tone set by managers and a sense of ‘professional duty’, particularly for those in care work, could all be reasons for the drop seen in sick days.

But he added that the real kicker for organisations was that being at work for more days in the year has not correlated in any way to an increase in productivity.

“In theory, it could be expected that a decline in sickness absence could be associated with rises in productivity, as there are more productive days available per worker. However, despite high employment rates and low sickness rates, that does not appear to be the case. The sting in the tail, therefore, is that while there may be more workers working more days, they are not producing that much more overall, and UK productivity remains stubbornly low.”

Calculate sickness absence in your sector at ONS here