An estimated 137 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016, according to a new report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This was equivalent to 4.3 days per worker, the lowest recorded rate since the series began in 1993, when the number was 7.2 days per worker.

Commenting on the findings of the report, ONS statistician Brendan Freeman said:
“Since 2003, there has been a fairly steady decline in the number of working days lost to sickness, especially during the economic downturn. In recent years, there has been a small rise in the number of days lost, but due to an increasing number of people entering the workforce, the rate per worker and overall sickness absence rate have stayed largely flat.”

The 137 million working days lost to sickness or injury in 2016 contrasts with a peak of around 185 million days lost a year in the late 1990s. Thereafter, the number of days declined to a low of 132 million days in 2013.

Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) accounted for the most days lost due to sickness in 2016, with 34 million days lost (24.8% of the total days lost to sickness) followed by musculoskeletal problems (including back pain, neck and upper limb problems) at 30.8 million days (22.4%). Mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and more serious conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia) resulted in 15.8 million days being lost (11.5%).

In 2016, the sickness absence rate was 1.9% in the UK. Sickness absence rates were highest in Wales and Scotland, at 2.6% and 2.5% respectively. They were lowest in London – at 1.4% – an area with a younger workforce and a concentration of high-skilled jobs, both of which tend to have low absence rates. Current smokers had a higher absence rate at 2.5% than for those who had never smoked (1.6%), according to 2015 data.

Employees tend to have a higher rate of sickness absence than the self-employed – in 2016 it was 2.1% for employees and 1.4% for the self-employed. Since 1994 (the earliest data available) public sector employees have had consistently higher rates than those employed in the private sector, though both sectors have seen an overall decrease, and the gap between them has generally narrowed. In 2016, the figures were 2.9% for the public sector and 1.7% for the private sector.

Background notes:

  1. The estimates included in this release have been produced using the Labour Force Survey and Annual Population Survey. They relate to people aged 16 and over in employment and are for the whole of the UK. Estimates are available from 1993 onwards and are based on annual averages for each calendar year.

  2. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available from the media office.

  3. National Statistics are produced to high professional standards set out in the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. They undergo regular quality assurance reviews to ensure that they meet customer needs. They are produced free from any political interference. © Crown copyright 2017.

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