A total of 131 million days were lost because of sickness absence in the UK during 2011, down more than a quarter from the 178 million days recorded in 1993, according to official figures.
The figures were published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in May and revealed that the number of days lost through sickness absences had remained broadly constant throughout the 1990s and up until 2003, when they started to fall.
In 1993 around 7.2 days were lost per person on average (or around a week and a half based on a five-day week), and by 2011 this had fallen to less than a week (4.5 days).
The most common reason given for sickness absence last year was minor illness such as coughs, colds and flu.
However, the greatest number of days lost were for musculoskeletal problems, which accounted for more than a quarter of sickness absence (34.4 million days).
Around 27.5 million days were lost because of minor illnesses and 13.1 million days to stress, depression and anxiety.
Women, the figures suggested, had consistently higher sickness absence rates than men, but both sexes have seen a fall over the past 20 years.
Men have gone from losing around 2.5% of their working hours to sickness in 1993 to around 1.5% in 2011. Over the same period, women have seen a reduction from 3.3% to 2.3%.
Sickness absence rates, perhaps unsurprisingly, also tended to increase with age.
For workers aged between 16 and 34, around 1.5% of working hours were lost to sickness in 2011 compared with around 2.5% for workers aged 50 to 64.
Workers aged 65 and over lost a lower percentage of hours to sickness, but this was because those with health problems were more likely to have left the labour market, said the ONS.
The percentage of hours lost to sickness in the private sector was also lower than in the public sector, 1.6% and 2.6% respectively. This is largely due to factors such as the different types of jobs between the two sectors and the fact that individuals within the private sector were more likely not to be paid for a spell of sickness, the ONS said.
Geographically, workers in London had the lowest percentage of hours lost to sickness, with the highest percentage in the North East and Wales.
Responding to the figures, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Workers are taking less time off sick than ever. The biggest problem workplaces face is not absenteeism but ‘presenteeism’, where workers come in when they are too ill.”
EEF chief medical adviser professor Sayeed Khan said: “The gains in tackling short-term absence have now been largely exhausted and, if we are now to make serious inroads into tackling long-term conditions, we need a renewed approach from Government, companies and other bodies.”