Latest figures for 2017 show that UK workers took on average 4.1 sickness absence days compared with 7.2 days in 1993 – almost half the number of days.
But sickness absence rates started to fall overall from 1999 and have shown a steady decline since the financial crash of 2008.
Since the economic downturn of 2008 sickness absence rates in the UK have fallen by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9% in 2017. Over the same period, in the private sector rates have decreased by 0.4 percentage points. In 2017, the rate stood at 1.7% for the private sector and 2.6% for the public sector. Public sector health workers had the highest rates at 3.3%, says the ONS bulletin issued on 30 July.
The ONS says sickness absence rates – which is the proportion of working hours lost to sickness absence - may have decreased as healthy life expectancy has improved over time.
But the ONS adds that not being paid for a spell of sickness and presenteeism - where people go to work even though they are ill – were also likely factors in the decrease of sick days taken in 2017.
Most organisations suffer from presenteeism, according to Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s May survey this year which found 86% of firms it approached have observed presenteeism over the past 12 months.
Over two-thirds had also noticed leaveism, such as people working when they should be on leave.
Cary Cooper, CIPD president and professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, said presenteeism was the true story behind the decline in people taking sick days.
“It’s not real. What’s pumping it is presenteeism,” he said, in an interview with the Independent.
“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.”
Mr Cooper said that presenteeism was harder to measure, but that there are things companies can do to gauge if low sickness absence is a sign of more unhealthy workplace pressures.
“Employers ought to be doing wellbeing audits to find out what their employees are perceiving about the workplace.”
Questions companies should ask themselves, he said, include: “Are we creating a long-hours culture, do we have a bullying management style?”