Sickness absence rate highest in over a decade, ONS data shows

Nearly 150 million days were lost in 2021, with experts urging employers not to ‘exacerbate’ health issues when returning to the workplace

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Sickness absence rates rose to their highest in more than 10 years last year, with Covid-19 responsible for almost a quarter of days off work, the latest official figures have shown.

The sickness absence rate in 2021 was 2.2 per cent, data from the Office for National Statistics revealed, up from 1.8 per cent the previous year and highest rate seen since 2010.

Nearly 150 million days were lost to sickness or injury overall in 2021: an average of 4.6 days per person.

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Covid-19 accounted for 24 per cent of all sickness absence last year: the biggest single reason and an increase from 14 per cent the year before. Other common reasons included accidents, poisoning and diabetes.

Karen Watkins, founder of Rowan Consulting, said the data showed sickness absence should not become an afterthought.

“What we should take away from these findings is that the exhaustion and health issues clearly experienced by certain groups during the pandemic are not exacerbated through the assumption that we are 'getting back to normal',” she said.

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The data, which drew on a sample size of approximately 1,000 people, found that women had a higher absence rate than men, continuing a trend that started in 1995.

Both groups saw an increase of 0.3 percentage points from the previous year, with women on average losing 2.6 per cent of their working hours because of sickness or injury, and men 1.8 per cent.

There were also other disparities in sickness absences across occupations and between part-time and full-time workers.

Those in the caring, leisure and other service occupations sector saw the highest sickness absence rate out of all sectors, at 3.8 per cent. This was followed by process plant and machinery, at 3.6 per cent, and elementary occupations, at 3.1 per cent.

Managers and senior officials saw the lowest rate out of all occupations, at 1.1 per cent. Associate professional and technology workers also saw a low rate of 1.7 per cent, and skilled trade workers had a sickness absence rate of 1.9 per cent. 

Those in part time roles saw a high sickness absence rate of 3.1 per cent, compared to just 2 per cent among full-time workers.

And workers in the public sector saw a high rate of 3 per cent, while those in the private sector saw a lower sickness absence rate of 1.9 per cent.

London was the region with the lowest rate of sickness absence, at 1.7 per cent – 0.5 percentage points below the UK average – while Wales had the highest rate at 2.8 per cent.

Helen Tinnelly, founder of training company Propelelo, said it was “no surprise” women and carers were more likely to feel the effects of sickness absence.

“Women need employers to provide more emotional support, flexible arrangements and inclusive workplaces” she said. “Employers that invest in women's emotional support benefit from greater loyalty, engagement and productivity from the women in their teams.”