Sickness absence levels bounced back sharply last year after hitting record lows at the start of the pandemic, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have shown.
The shift to home working in 2020 and the impact of furlough, social distancing and shielding all caused headline sickness absence rates to plummet.
But sickness absence rates roared back to an 11-year high in 2021, fuelled by the rise of new Covid variants, the impact of long Covid, the relaxation or ending of pandemic restrictions, rising rates of mental ill health and burnout, and the knock-on effect of the pandemic on non-Covid health conditions.
According to the ONS, the 2021 sickness absence rate for the UK increased to 2.2% from the record low of 1.8% recorded in 2020. The figure for 2021 is the highest rate recorded since 2010, when it was also 2.2%.
The most common reason for sickness absence in 2021 was “other” conditions, which includes accidents, poisonings and diabetes but also absence for Covid-19. Between them, these accounted for more than a quarter of all absences (27%) in 2021.
This was followed by minor illnesses (22%), musculoskeletal problems (13%), and mental health conditions (10%).
Groups with the highest absence rates in 2021 included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, people working part time and people working in caring, leisure and other service occupations.
Sickness absence and work
Sickness absence increased for all age groups from 2020 to 2021, the ONS said, with the rate for those aged 65 years and over being the highest on record, at 3%.
Looking at the situation by gender, men lost 2% of their working hours in 2021, an increase of 0.3 percentage points from 2020 as a result of sickness or injury, and women lost 3% of their working hours, again an increase of 0.3 percentage points from the previous year.
By location, workers living in Wales had the highest sickness absence rate in the UK of 3%, while those living in London had the lowest rate of 2%, 0.5 percentage points below the UK average.
This disparity could largely be explained by the younger age profile of people working in London, and the type of occupations they do, the ONS said, highlighting that there is a larger concentration of high-skilled jobs in London, which tend to have a lower absence rate.
The sickness absence rate remains consistently higher for public sector workers, at 3%, than their counterparts in the private sector (2%), it added.
The total number of working days lost to sickness or injury increased to an estimated 149.3 million working days in 2021, or the equivalent to 4.6 days per worker, the ONS said.
However, it also emphasised that caution should be taken when trying to analyse or compare total days lost for 2020 and 2021 because of the impact of furloughed workers and policy during the pandemic.
On the 2021 figures, a spokesperson for ONS said: “After a record low sickness absence rate in 2020, with Covid-19 measures such as furloughing, social distancing, shielding and increased homeworking helping to reduce other causes of absence, the relaxation or ending of these measures, coupled with new variants of the virus, led to a rise in sickness absence from work in 2021, to above pre-pandemic levels.
“The absence rate was last that high in 2010, and Covid-19 accounted for almost one in four absences,” the spokesperson added.