137 million working days lost to sickness and injury in 2016


An estimated 137 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016, according to a new report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This was equivalent to 4.3 days per worker, the lowest recorded rate since the series began in 1993, when the number was 7.2 days per worker.

Commenting on the findings of the report, ONS statistician Brendan Freeman said:

“Since 2003, there has been a fairly steady decline in the number of working days lost to sickness, especially during the economic downturn. In recent years, there has been a small rise in the number of days lost, but due to an increasing number of people entering the workforce, the rate per worker and overall sickness absence rate have stayed largely flat.”

The 137 million working days lost to sickness or injury in 2016 contrasts with a peak of around 185 million days lost a year in the late 1990s. Thereafter, the number of days declined to a low of 132 million days in 2013.

Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) accounted for the most days lost due to sickness in 2016, with 34 million days lost (24.8% of the total days lost to sickness) followed by musculoskeletal problems (including back pain, neck and upper limb problems) at 30.8 million days (22.4%). Mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and more serious conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia) resulted in 15.8 million days being lost (11.5%).

In 2016, the sickness absence rate was 1.9% in the UK. Sickness absence rates were highest in Wales and Scotland, at 2.6% and 2.5% respectively. They were lowest in London – at 1.4% – an area with a younger workforce and a concentration of high-skilled jobs, both of which tend to have low absence rates. Current smokers had a higher absence rate at 2.5% than for those who had never smoked (1.6%), according to 2015 data.

Employees tend to have a higher rate of sickness absence than the self-employed – in 2016 it was 2.1% for employees and 1.4% for the self-employed. Since 1994 (the earliest data available) public sector employees have had consistently higher rates than those employed in the private sector, though both sectors have seen an overall decrease, and the gap between them has generally narrowed. In 2016, the figures were 2.9% for the public sector and 1.7% for the private sector.

Kevin Huffington of Central Occupational Health said:

“It’s good to see a decline in sickness absence rates across the UK, and these figures show employers are now paying more attention to wellbeing in the workplace.

“Looking after the health of employees through workplace wellbeing initiatives and expert occupational health services has a dramatic and long-term positive effect on business, and the companies we work with report increased productivity, higher levels of staff retention, and, of course, healthier profit margins.

“However, these figures shouldn’t blur more challenging times ahead for employers, with an ageing workforce across many sectors meaning the importance of maintaining good health in the workplace has never been greater.”


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