In Brief

Why are UK workers taking fewer sick days?

ONS says number of days off last year fell to a record low

The number of sick days being taken by British workers has fallen to the lowest level on record, fueling fears that more people are choosing to work while ill because they are fearful for their job.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal the average number of sick days taken by UK workers fell to 4.1 in 2017, a sharp decline from the 7.2 recorded in 1993, when the data was first collected.

The sickness absence rate, the proportion of working hours lost to sickness, was higher in the public sector (2.6%) than in the private sector (1.7%), although the discrepancy has narrowed since the financial crisis a decade ago.

“Higher sickness absence in the public sector is partly explained by the profile of the workforce,” says the ONS. “It employs more older people and women, both of whom tend to have higher rates of sickness absence.”

Minor illness such as coughs or colds and back and joint pain still make up the majority of excuses, although a breakdown of the figures reveal that younger people are far more likely to cite mental health as a reason for work-related absence than their older peers.

Among 25 to 34-year-olds, 9.6% of sick days were due to mental health conditions last year, up from 7.2% in 2009.

But while decreased rates could be down to healthier lifestyles among workers, it may also reflect a private sector where workers are less likely to be paid for a spell of sickness and fears among workers in casual employment repeated absences could endanger their future job prospects.

Sir Cary Cooper, a professor at Manchester Business School, said presenteeism, where people go to work even though they are ill, was the major factor in the drop in average sick days taken.

“Sickness absence is low because presenteeism is high,” he told The Guardian. “Given the aftermath of the recession and with Brexit looming people are frightened to be off ill, so they show ‘face time’ when ill or feeling low or job dissatisfied.

“They do not want high levels of absenteeism on their HR record, which they feel will make them vulnerable.” 

In response to the figures, the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “It’s time to ditch the myth that UK workers are always throwing sickies. The reality is that people are more likely to go to work when ill than stay home when well”.

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