Calls for reform as ONS data finds 185 million working days lost through sickness and injury

Former cabinet ministers, trade unions and think tanks demand changes to statutory sick pay, as official data shows absences at record levels

Credit: LumiNola

Official data has revealed that an estimated 185.6 million working days were lost because of sickness or injury last year. 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the level of sickness absence rose to 2.6 per cent in 2022, the highest on record since 2004. The number of days lost per worker (5.7), however, was not a record high.

Minor illnesses – such as coughs, colds, flu, sickness, nausea and diarrhoea – were the most common reasons for sickness absence, accounting for just under a third (29.3 per cent) of occurrences. 

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Other conditions – such as accidents, poisonings, infectious diseases, skin disorders, diabetes and anything else not covered – accounted for 23.8 per cent, followed by musculoskeletal problems (10.5 per cent), respiratory conditions (8.3 per cent) and mental health conditions (7.9 per cent). 

Helen Scullion, HR client manager at Limelite HR, said employers needed to be proactive in managing sickness absence rather than reactive, alongside having regular check-ins. “There is evidence that being in work is good for people, so it is important to be proactive in holding meetings with the employee so they feel supported and so the business knows what they can expect from the employee and how to get the best out of them,” said Scullion.

“This is especially important now the world of work has changed for all of us. We are all working differently so employers and HR professionals need to be agile and curious in looking for ways to reduce sickness absence and support the needs of the business and their employees at work.”

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HR can prevent sickness absences leaving skills gaps in an organisation through a skills matrix, Scullion added. “A skills matrix is helpful here so the employer can see where the gaps are. Forward planning is again needed so gaps are not left should someone go off on long-term sick or leave the organisation,” she said. 

Meanwhile, recent research by law firm GQ|Littler found that fit notes have hit an “all-time high”, up to 10.4 million in September 2022. 

The research identified that while Covid was the main reason, the second most common reason was mental health issues arising from the “current state of the economy”.

Dr Jo Burrell, co-founder and clinical psychologist at Ultimate Resilience, said job market instability, the cost of living crisis and workload can increase people’s vulnerability to stress and mental health issues – which would give rise to sickness absence. 

“Employers should monitor the impact of these factors on employees and take a strategic approach to reduce stress and enhance employee wellbeing to create psychologically safe working environments that support positive mental health,” said Burrell. 

The ONS figures found that sickness absence for those with long-term health conditions was at its highest point since 2008, currently at 4.9 per cent, with the number of days lost for this group at a record high of 104.9 million days. 

Additionally, previous ONS analysis found that half a million more people are out of the labour force because of long-term sickness than they were three years ago.

Meanwhile, in an open letter, former cabinet ministers Priti Patel and Sir Robert Buckland have urged the government to make “simple tweaks” to statutory sick pay to ensure all workers are entitled to receive it. 

The letter said that changes to sick pay “could complement other measures already announced in Jeremy Hunt’s back to work budget” and – referencing the ONS data on labour inactivity as a result of long-term sickness – suggested it could encourage those individuals back into work.  

Patel and Buckland wrote: “A modest investment in supporting those affected by ill health will save businesses money by reducing the impact and risk of longer-term absence, help efforts to support recruitment, retention and employee morale, and provide a boost to our economy.”

A similar request was also made in the Resolution Foundation’s Low Pay Britain report, which was supported by TUC general secretary Paul Nowak, who described Britain’s sick pay rate as “miserly”. 

“We must fix our broken sick pay system by making statutory sick pay available from day one and raising it to the level of the real living wage,” Nowak said.