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Sickness absence downward travel continues

Sickness rates are falling again for men and women of all age groups.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a general downward trajectory in sickness rates, from 178 million lost days in 1993 to 131 million days in 2013, according to figures recently published by the Office for National Statistics. That's a fall of 26 per cent.

In 1993, the average worker lost around 7.2 days to sickness, but in 2013, the figure was 4.4 days.

Following a small rise in 2012, the total number of lost days is back to the level reported in 2011.

Reasons for absence

Minor illnesses were the most common reason given for sickness absence but more days were lost to back, neck and muscle pain than any other cause.

Coughs and colds and the like were given as reason for 30 per cent of absences, but they tended to be short in duration, accounting for around 27.4 million lost days.

Neck pain, back pain and other musculoskeletal problems, on the other hand, were behind the greatest number of days lost at 30.6 million.

Depression, anxiety and stress accounted for 15.2 million days lost.


Some traditional differences between groups prevailed.

Women were found to be 42 per cent more likely to take sickness absence than men.

Employees in the private sector were less likely to be off sick than their counterparts in the public sector, but the gap between them has narrowed in the last 20 years.

Self-employed people lost fewer hours to sickness than employees, a trend that has been maintained since at least 1993.

Analysis and comment

Commentators warned that the general fall in sickness absence could be happening alongside a rise in presenteeism, with staff feeling pressured to come into work even though they are unwell - risking the spread of infection, the prolongation of their own illnesses, and an increase in workplace stress.

One analyst pointed out that while there was a downward trend overall, the number of days lost to stress, depression and anxiety had actually risen by a third since 2010.

Acas publications and services

Acas has published the pdf icon Advisory booklet - Managing attendance and employee turnover [568kb], as well as the pdf icon Promoting positive mental health in the workplace [386kb], which aims to help employers create a supportive environment and take practical steps to address to the common causes of mental ill-health in the workplace.

Acas experts can visit your workplace and help you develop new and better management systems, and review the effectiveness of your existing stress management arrangements; for details go to Health, wellbeing and managing attendance.

Practical training is also available on AbsenceStress and Health, work and wellbeing.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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