Sickness absence hits all-time low

Sickness absence hits all-time low

Sickness absence levels have fallen to their lowest on record – possibly because employees feel obliged to come into work when they’re ill.


New data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that workers took an average of 4.1 days of sick leave in 2017 – the lowest since records began in 1993. In that year, each worker took an average of 7.2 days off sick.

The total number of days lost due to sickness in 2017, at 131.2 million, has reduced by more than a quarter in the past 24 years, despite there being far more people in work last year than in the early 1990s.

The proportion of working hours lost to sickness absence – known as the sickness absence rate – was 1.9% in 2017, compared with 3.1% in 1993.

The main reason for sickness absence in 2017 was minor illnesses such as coughs and colds.

This was closely followed by musculoskeletal disorders – conditions like bad backs, sore necks and painful joints. The total number of days lost to this group of conditions has broadly declined over the past eight years, and in 2017 was slightly lower than the year before.

The third most common cause of sickness absence, when the category “other” is removed, was stress, depression and anxiety. The total number of days taken as sick leave due to these conditions has fallen in the past three years to an average of around half a day per worker in 2017.

In its statistical release, the ONS speculated that the rate may have declined in recent years because healthy life expectancy has improved and that there may be an increase in “presenteeism”, where people go to work even though they are ill.

This theory is backed by a survey by HR professionals’ body the CIPD, released earlier in the year, which found that presenteeism was at a record high.