One in seven sickness absences caused by Covid, official figures show

Coughs and colds still the biggest reason for sick days, ONS finds, with social distancing and home working potentially contributing to employees needing less time off

Coronavirus was responsible for around one in seven sickness absences since the start of the first lockdown, according to official figures.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has shown Covid-19 accounted for 14 per cent of all sickness absence since April 2020.

But while the virus may have led to more sick days, the ONS said policies including furlough, social distancing and home working had caused an overall fall in the number of sickness absences.

The ONS found 118.6 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury in 2020, equivalent to 3.6 days lost per worker. While these were the lowest levels since records began in 1995, the ONS warned that this figure could have been affected by the furlough scheme.

The rate of sickness absences –  the percentage of working hours lost through sickness – also fell to 1.8 per cent last year.

Government guidance asking those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to shield could also have contributed to the lower rate of sickness absences, the ONS said, as these individuals who in a normal year would be more likely to take a sickness absence were likely to be either furloughed or working from home for most of last year.

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In April 2020, nearly half (47 per cent) of the UK’s working population was working from home, the ONS said: “This, together with government asking people to social distance and self-isolate, may have led to less exposure to germs and minimise some of the usual sickness absences.

“Home working could also have allowed people to work when they were a little unwell; they might not have travelled to a workplace to work but felt well enough to work from home.” 

Despite this, minor illnesses including coughs and colds were still the largest cause of sick days, accounting for 26 per cent of absences. However, there was a 4.1 percentage point drop in the number of absences for these reasons in 2020 compared to 2019.

Musculoskeletal problems were the second largest identified cause of absences at 15 per cent; however, while the increase in working from home has led to widespread concerns about the impact on employees’ musculoskeletal health, the ONS did not weigh into whether this figure been impacted by the Covid crisis.