The UK has one of the lowest employee absence rates in Europe, with figures released by the ONS in 2023 reporting workers took an average of 5.7 work days off sick per year in 2022.
Figures released by the CIPD in September 2023 suggest a dramatic increase in the previous 12 months. The study found average sick days taken had soared to an average of 7.8 days. This is the highest rate of sickness absence in a decade.
But what does the data about our workplace absence rates mean? You may be surprised to learn that low absence rates are not necessarily a positive statistic in terms of overall employee health and wellbeing.
The UK workforce had a sickness absence rate of 2.6% according to data gathered by the ONS covering employee sick days during 2022. This was a 0.4% increase from the previous year.
Our guide breaks down some key figures from workforce data sources to help understand common causes of time off work, and average absence levels from 1995 to 2023. We examine why UK workers appear much more reluctant to take sick leave than their European counterparts.
Average Employee Sick Days Per Year – UK Workforce 2022 – 2023
The UK has a relatively low average number of sick days compared to some EU countries. ONS Data on sickness absences is published in April each year.
The most 2023 sick day data showed:-
- In 2022 there were 185.6 million working days lost to sickness in the UK. This is an average of 5.7 days off sick per employee.
- This was an increase of 36.3 million sick days from 2021, putting UK sick days at their highest rate since 2010.
- By comparison the average in Germany, which is famed for its productivity, was 18.3 days.
- The UK has the 4th lowest average number of employee sick days in Europe.
- Average sick days per year had been steadily dropping since 1995 when the UK average was 8 days each year.
- The downward trend now appears to be reversing with a CIPD study released in September 2023 suggesting an average of 7.8 sick days per worker. This was based on a sample of 6.5 million employees. The same survey found that employees took an average of 5.8 sick days per year just two years earlier.
Sickness Absence Rates – 1995 to 2022
This ONS graph shows the gradual reduction in sickness absence rates from 1995 to 2022. The increase in 2021 was driven by covid related absences and this trendline has continued into 2022.
Sickness Absence Rate & Average Days Off Per Worker 2017 – 2022
Comparison of absence rates and average days off in 1995 & 2004 vs the last 5 years in the UK labour market. In 1995 the average was 7.2 days off per year, and in 2022 it was 5.7 – this is an overall reduction of 19.2%.
The 2021 & 2022 figures include absences driven by the Covid Pandemic, which had a significant impact on sick days.
From 2020 to 2022 average sick days have increased from 3.6 to 5.7, a 58.3% increase.
|Year||Absence Rate||Average Days Off|
Is a Low Absence Rate a Good Sign?
So who has the problem? Is it Germany, or the UK? Whilst the reduction could be seen as positive from a productivity perspective, the driving factors may be less than positive.
Some studies suggest that the UK may be suffering from a workplace culture which makes workers feel they must go to work even if they are not well enough to do so.
The 2022 CIPD study on Health and Wellbeing at Work notes that:-
“Presenteeism (working when ill) remains prevalent. However, fewer HR respondents report it in the workplace (2022: 65%; 2021: 75%)
Although more report observing it among those working from home (2022: 81%; 2021: 7%)2022 CIPD study on Health and Wellbeing at Work
Factors Behind the UK’s Low Staff Absence Rate
The UK has some negative underlying factors that limit the tendency to take sick days. Presenteeism affects employee wellbeing and productivity.
Poor Sick Pay Levels
UK Statutory sick pay is paid at a flat rate of £109.40 per week. It is only payable after 3 sick days have been taken, which means the first 3 days are unpaid.
This can leave workers facing financial hardship if they need to take time off work. SSP is payable for 28 weeks.
The TUC suggests that to meet living costs, the sick pay rate should be £330 per week.
German workers on sick leave can get 6 weeks per year on full pay, and then 70% for up to 78 weeks if they are suffering from a long term illness.
See also: Do I get full pay if injured at work?
Poor Workplace Culture Resulting in Presenteeism
Personnel Today pointed to poor workplace culture playing a role in employees feeling they need to work when sick.
They quote company culture specialist Lizzie Benton who pointed out “Fear and control is what many organisations are run by, and for employees, asking for a day off sick is like showing weakness, or admitting a failure.”
Presenteeism can result in reduced productivity and employee burnout. Whilst some company cultures focus on keeping sick days to a minimum, they fail to see the effect on employee wellbeing. This can ultimately feed into staff performance.
Most Common Causes of Time Off Work
The ONS collects annual data on the reasons why employees needed to take time off work.
In 2022 the most common reasons for absence were:-
- Minor illnesses (29.3%) – This includes colds, viruses, and other bugs.
- Other (23%) – these figures include covid absences as well as some other illnesses such as diabetes, and events like accidental poisonings.
- Muscoskeletal problems (10.5%) – This covers any condition affecting bones, muscles, and joints.
- Mental Health Conditions (7.9%) – This can include employees signed off work for stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
How Many Sick Days are Acceptable?
Sick days will always be a concern to employers, however not all reasons for employee absence are the same.
That means you can’t easily set a limit on how many sick days are acceptable before disciplinary action is taken. Whilst systems such as the Bradford Factor and absence trigger points can be used, they can’t be viewed in isolation.
The reason for absence also must be considered when weighing up the possibility of conducting a disciplinary.
How is Sickness Absence Data Gathered?
Employee sickness absence data is usually collated by HR. When you call in sick, you may be asked to give a reason why you need time off.
Whilst you are not obligated to reveal private medical data, the reason you provide may later be used to make decisions about disciplinary action.
Any data about reasons for time off work should be kept confidential, and records stored in accordance with GDPR in the workplace rules.
How to Calculate Average Sick Days Per Employee
There are two different metrics which an HR manager may wish to monitor.
- Average sickness absence rate for individual employees.
- Average sickness absence rate of the entire workforce.
- To calculate sickness absence rate for indvidual employees the formula is: Total number of days (or hours) contracted ÷ days or hours absent x 100 = employee absence rate in percent.
- To calculate sickness absence rate for the entire workforce the formula is: Total days or hours absent for whole workforce ÷ number of employees x 100 employee absence rate in percent.