Sickness absence rate highest in a decade, survey data shows

Experts warn that poor absence management can end up ‘piling the pressure’ on remaining staff

Violeta Stoimenova/Getty Images

Sickness absence rates have climbed to their highest levels in more than a decade, data has shown.

A poll of employers, conducted by XpertHR, found the sickness absence rate reached 3.1 per cent in 2021, the highest rate since 2009.

This translated to an average of 7.3 sick days a year per employee, which XpertHR estimated cost employers on average £781 for each member of staff.

Sick pay reform could boost UK economy by £4bn, study suggests

Long Covid may not always count as a disability, equalities watchdog warns

400,000 people have left the workforce for health reasons since Covid, report finds

XpertHR said the increase was likely due to the lifting of coronavirus restrictions. During the pandemic, sickness absences dropped to 2.2 per cent, likely because the prevalence of home working and shielding mitigated the spread of sickness.

This could also be seen in the differences in absences by sector. Sectors where remote working is more viable, including finance and information and communication, had a lower rate of 3 per cent, whereas frontline sectors including retail had a higher rate of 4.4 per cent.

Noelle Murphy, senior HR practice editor at XpertHR, cautioned that high absence rates could have an impact on both the functioning of a business and the wellbeing of other staff.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

“High absence rates… can leave companies under-staffed, often piling on the pressure on those employees who are present which in and of itself is very unhealthy and unsustainable,” he said.

The research, which polled 149 businesses, also found four in 10 (43 per cent) of employers felt their sickness absence rate was too high. However, 63 per cent said they felt unable to gather the HR data needed to effectively manage sickness absences.

The results echo the findings of official data, published earlier this year, that found nearly 150 million working days were lost in 2021 due to ill-health.

Figures published in May by the Office for National Statistics showed the sickness absence rate in 2021 was 2.2 per cent, up from 1.8 per cent the previous year and highest rate seen since 2010, nearly a quarter of which were related to Covid.