Sickness absence drops to all-time low

Workplace sickness absence is at an all-time low, the Government’s official statistics body said in March.

An estimated 137 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in the UK in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics. This equated to the equivalent to 4.3 days per worker – the lowest recorded rate since the series began in 1993, when the number was 7.2 days per worker, it added.

ONS statistician Brendan Freeman said: “Since 2003, there has been a fairly steady decline in the number of working days lost to sickness, especially during the economic downturn.

“In recent years, there has been a small rise in the number of days lost, but due to an increasing number of people entering the workforce, the rate per worker and overall sickness absence rate have stayed largely flat.”

The 137 million working days lost to sickness or injury in 2016 contrasts with a peak of about 185 million days lost a year in the late 1990s. Thereafter, the number of days declined to a low of 132 million days in 2013, it said.

Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) accounted for the most days lost because of sickness in 2016, with 34 million days lost (24.8% of the total days lost to sickness).

This was followed by musculoskeletal problems (including back pain, neck and upper limb problems) at 30.8 million days (22.4%).

Mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and more serious conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia) resulted in 15.8 million days being lost (11.5%).

During 2016, the sickness absence rate was 1.9% for the UK as a whole. Sickness absence rates were highest in Wales and Scotland, at 2.6% and 2.5% respectively.

They were lowest in London – at 1.4% – primarily because of the fact it tends to have a younger workforce and a concentration of high-skilled jobs, both of which tend to have low absence rates, the ONS argued.

Current smokers had a higher absence rate at 2.5% than for those who had never smoked (1.6%), according to 2015 data.

Employees tended to have a higher rate of sickness absence than the self-employed – in 2016, it was 2.1% for employees and 1.4% for the self-employed.

Since 1994 (the earliest data available), public-sector employees have had consistently higher rates than those employed in the private sector, though both sectors had seen an overall decrease and the gap between them is narrowing.

In 2016, the figures were 2.9% for the public sector and 1.7% for the private sector, said ONS.

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