CIPD: The number of sick days fell by 131 million days last year to ‘just’ 4.4 days per worker, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. This data confirms the continued downward trend in sickness absence, however, commentators suggest the fall is down to employers getting tougher on absence rather than healthier employees. It has also been suggested that reductions in the official figures simply hide a rise in presenteeism.
Sickness absence at work has fallen by nearly a third compared to a decade ago, when the average worker took 7.3 days off sick per year – a total of 178 million per year. The main causes of sickness were musculoskeletal conditions (31 million days off), followed by minor coughs and colds (27 million) and anxiety/depression (15 million).
But according to Ami Naru, employment specialist at law firm Irwin Mitchell, the figures are not necessarily evidence that people are getting less sick; it’s that employers are tightening up absence policies.
Naru said: “Employers have toughened up in terms of policing sickness. The fall in sickness absence, although welcome news, will therefore probably not come as a surprise to those prudent employers who have such policies in place.”
Although the trend for sickness absence is down (by 40 per cent over the last 20 years), last year’s reduction is one of the smallest – down by just 3 million days since 2012 – with experts divided about what message this reveals.
Responding to the fact workers aged 16-24 – a group often blamed for taking ‘sickies’ too easily – actually took the fewest number of days off ill, Frances O’Grady, TUC secretary general said: “These figures prove there is no such thing as a sickie culture.”
However, she conceded the figures could mask the more worrying rise in presenteeism: “The real health threat we face,” she said, “is the growing culture of presenteeism, where unwell staff are pressured into coming to work by their bosses.” O’Grady added: “This can prolong illness, spread diseases and cause stress in the workplace.”
This concern was echoed by former CIPD chief economic adviser, Dr John Philpott, now director at The Jobs Economist. He said: “Although the overall rate of sickness is down, more working days are being lost to the common mental health problems of stress, depression and anxiety. The 15.8 million days lost here in 2013 was up from 11.8 million days lost in 2010.”
According to the statistics, the worst occupations for sickness absence are in the caring sector with 3.2 per cent of days lost through sickness. Management and senior officials take the fewest, with just 1.3 per cent of days lost to sickness.
Men were less likely to be ill than women – with women 42 per cent more likely to be off ill than men – while those in the private sector retain the crown for having the best attendance records – sickness rates here are running at 1.8 per cent compared to 2.9 per cent in the public sector.
While sickness absence was found to rise with age, the ONS statistics revealed it starts to decline again after people past beyond what was retirement age (65). For those over 65, the percentage of working hours lost to sickness is 2.3 per cent, lower than the 2.8 per cent for those in the 50-64 age bracket”.