An overall reduction in sickness absence levels – a positive sign but more can be done

Written by: Fit for Work team | Posted in: Blog

It has been reported in a recent analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that workers in the UK are taking fewer sick days than ever before, a trend that hints at changes in attitudes and conditions in the workplace.

The results of the ONS report show that every worker across Britain took on average 4.3 sick days in 2016 – down from a high of 7.2 days in 1993. This downward trend suggests that changes in working conditions (e.g. the move away from heavy industry and manufacturing) as well as improvements in the general health of the nation (e.g. better diets and more leisure time) may have led to a healthier, more robust workforce.

Employers are also increasingly aware of the importance of maintaining a fit, healthy and happy group of employees – it’s generally accepted that looking after the health and wellbeing of employees leads to better staff retention, lower sickness rates and increased productivity. Because of this, many companies are prepared to be flexible to accommodate the health needs of their workers by offering part-time hours or shorter days, and many more are paying greater attention to the mental health of their employees and taking steps to ameliorate stress.

However, despite these improvements, sickness levels are still significant and remain damaging to the productivity of UK businesses. An estimated 137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness and injury in 2016.

Major causes of sickness absence

  • Colds, flu, coughs and other minor illnesses accounted for the largest proportion of illnesses: 8% of total days lost, or 34 million working days.
  • Back pain, neck ache and upper limb problems (e.g. repetitive strain injury) and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs): 4% of total days lost, or 30.8 million working days.
  • Stress, depression, anxiety and all other mental health issues: 5% of total days lost or 15.8 million working days.

The ONS data shows that short-term, one-off, often unavoidable illnesses such as colds and flu cause the greatest proportion of sick days. However, these short-term absences can actually have a less significant impact on organisations and individuals than long-term conditions such as MSDs, respiratory conditions and mental health issues. These long-term conditions account for almost 50% of sick days, and the impact of long-term absence (four weeks or more) cannot be underestimated. It can be a real struggle for organisations to cover the workloads of absent employees for extended periods, and the longer a person is off work, the harder it is for them to return.

Some key sickness absence trends

  • The ageing workforce: The ONS figures show a fall in all areas of sickness absence from 1993-2016, except amongst older workers (65+) which went from 2.7%* to 2.9%*. The population is ageing and the working population aged 65+ trebled between 1993-2016 as people have attempted to boost their pension income or take advantage of their ongoing good health to keep working. For employers, this trend means they need to be flexible and open-minded about working hours and recruitment. And an ageing population means an increase in the number of employees with at least one long-term health condition, which can have implications in terms of sickness absence.
  • Smoking: Smokers are more prone to sickness absence than non-smokers. Smokers lose on average 2.5%* of their working time to illness compared to 1.2%* among people who have never smoked.
  • Public sector workers: Those working in the public sector have historically lost a greater proportion of their working time to sickness absence than those in the private sector. Whilst improvements have been made, more still needs to be done to align the public sector with the private sector in terms of working time lost to sickness absence.

The ONS is using the figures to inform both government policy makers and employers on the character and trends of sickness absence in the UK in order that the necessary steps can be taken to reduce rates sickness absence rates yet further.

Employers increasingly recognise the importance of good health among their employees and have been imaginative with their methods of improving morale, with the use of occupational health support, relaxation areas, flexible working and even yoga classes in the office.

Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).

*The proportion of working hours lost to sickness.

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