More than 30 million working days lost to work-related ill health over the past year, data shows

Economists say cases have gone ‘through the roof’ as union calls on government to increase SSP

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Official data has found that 30.8 million working days were lost in 2021-22 as a result of work-related ill health. 

The data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that there were more than 1.8 million work-related ill health cases – new or longstanding – in 2021-22, with the primary causes of ill health being work-related stress, depression or anxiety (914,000), musculoskeletal disorders (477,000) and exposure to coronavirus at work (123,000). 

The latest annual statistics also found that new cases of ill health in the workforce cost £11.2bn in 2019-20, which is having a detrimental impact on the economy. 

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David Pye, director at independent consultancy Broadstone, said the rates of work-related ill-health had gone “through the roof” following the pandemic, and warned that the problem is likely to get worse. “The financial worries people are now experiencing will only be adding to the levels of depression and anxiety,” said Pye, adding that ill health in the workplace was likely to become increasingly problematic over the mid-term, and would “leave employers grappling with increasing long-term absences, distracted by having to find and recruit experienced staff and plummeting levels of wellbeing”. 

Meanwhile, a survey from retail trade union Usdaw found three quarters (76 per cent) of low-paid workers cannot afford to live off statutory sick pay (SSP). 

The survey of 7,500 members (mainly low-paid key workers in retail) found that the figure rose to 90 per cent for those on in-work benefits, with the combination of the cost of living crisis and low SSP (currently £99.35 per week) impacting their ability to call in sick. 

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The union is calling for the government to reform SSP and deliver a new deal that ensures it reflects average pay.

Paddy Lillis, general secretary at Usdaw, said low-paid workers were being “forced” to live on low SSP, and that those on low wages, earning under £123 per week, weren’t entitled to it. “The government must remove this discriminatory policy, so all workers are entitled to sick pay based on their normal rate of pay,” he said. 

Sarah Loates, director at Loates Business Solutions, said that attending work when ill because of financial concerns was bad for both the employee and the business. “Often this means the employee takes far longer to recover, which in turn can impact the business because of additional overtime or agency staff costs,” she said. “An occupational sick pay scheme could differentiate the employer and support attraction in a tight labour market. In addition, if eligibility is linked to length of service this is a good way to reward longer-serving employees.” 

She added that a lack of access to GPs and long waiting lists were creating a “perfect storm of discomfort” for employees, and advised employers to consider “insurance schemes that provide private medical cover, or healthcare cash plans that enable employees to claim back the costs of routine healthcare for a monthly premium”.