Fewer "sickies" not necessarily a healthy sign

7 March 2014

The number of sick days taken by UK employees fell by 131 million days last year to 4.4 days per worker, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This represents a continued downward trend in sickness absence. However, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has questioned whether this drop hides a rise in presenteeism and has suggested that the fall is down to employers getting tougher on absence rather than healthier employees.

According to the CIPD, 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. The main causes of sickness are musculoskeletal conditions, followed by minor coughs and colds and anxiety/depression.

Ami Naru, employment specialist at law firm Irwin Mitchell, 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."

Interestingly, workers aged 16-24 – a group often blamed for taking too many "sickies" – 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 said the figures could mask a more worrying trend: "The real health threat we face is the growing culture of presenteeism, where unwell staff are pressured into coming to work by their bosses."

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."

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