Sick Britain: Workplace absences at highest in a decade

Employees took on average 7.8 days of leave due to illness during the past year

British workers took more sick leave in the past year than any time over the past decade, a survey of employers has revealed. Getty Images
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Workers in the UK took more sick leave in the last year than any time over the past decade, a survey of employers has revealed.

Employees took an average 7.8 days of leave due to illness during the past year, the poll of several hundred people for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed.

That was up from 5.8 in the last comparable survey in late 2019, and is the highest in records dating back to 2010 – pointing to signs of a lasting increase in ill health since the Covid pandemic.

"The considerable rise in absences across all sectors is a worry. External factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have had profound impacts on many people's well-being," said Rachel Suff, the institute's senior employee well-being adviser.

The institute did not collect comparable data on sickness leave during the pandemic, while separate official data showed a dip in 2020 as furlough and other restrictions led to fewer people taking time off for minor ailments.

Sickness rates were up across the board but varied widely between employers.

Public-sector staff took over two weeks' sick leave on average, nearly twice as much as employees in private-sector services firms. Large employers also report much higher absence rates than smaller ones.

More than a third of employers said Covid remained a significant cause of short-term absence, although minor illnesses, injuries and mental ill health were all more common reasons.

Stress commonly caused absence in more than a quarter of employers.

The institute data, which was sponsored by health insurer Simplyhealth and based on a survey conducted in March and April, show a similar trend to previous official data.

Britain's Office for National Statistics said 2.6 per cent of working hours were lost due to sickness or injury in 2022, the most since 2004 and equivalent to 5.7 days per worker.

The number of working-age people unable to work because of long-term ill health has also risen by almost half a million since the start of the pandemic, unlike other causes of economic inactivity which have declined over the past year.

Meanwhile, the UK's inflation-fuelled cost-of-living crisis is set to "cut lives short" and "significantly widen the wealth-health gap", as stated by a study published by open access journal BMJ Public Health on Monday.

Modelling conducted for the study predicted that the proportion of people "dying before their time" (under the age of 75) would rise by nearly 6.5 per cent due to the sustained period of high prices.

Household bills

The most deprived households will experience four times the number of extra deaths than the wealthiest households, it forecast, with the poorest having to spend a larger proportion of their income on energy, the cost of which has soared.

The researchers studied the impact of inflation on death rates in Scotland in 2022-3, with and without mitigating measures such as government support to help cut household bills.

The collected data was then used to model various potential future outcomes on life expectancy and inequalities for the UK as a whole if different mitigating policies were implemented.

Without any mitigation, the model found that inflation could increase deaths by five per cent in the least deprived areas and by 23 per cent in the most deprived - coming down to two per cent and eight per cent with mitigation, with an overall rate of around 6.5 per cent.

Overall life expectancy would also fall in each case, it added.

"Our analysis contributes to evidence that the economy matters for population health," said the researchers.

"The mortality impacts of inflation and real-terms income reduction are likely to be large and negative, with marked inequalities in how these are experienced.

"Implemented public policy responses are not sufficient to protect health and prevent widening inequalities," they added.

UK inflation unexpectedly slowed in August to 6.7 per cent from a high of 11.1 per cent, but remains the highest in the G7, fuelled by coronavirus lockdowns, Brexit and the war in Ukraine.

Updated: September 26, 2023, 9:46 AM