The number of days taken as sick leave has fallen to the lowest rate since records began, as staff struggle in to work through fear of losing their job.
About 137 million working days were lost to illness last year, equivalent to 4.3 days per worker, according to official figures. When records began in 1993 it was 7.2 days per worker.
The sickness absence rate — working hours lost to sickness as a percentage of total hours worked — now stands at 1.9 per cent compared with 3.1 per cent in 1993.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which compiled the figures, noted that the fall had been particularly dramatic since the economic downturn in 2007, suggesting that a lack of job security was a significant factor.
However, HR managers in the public and private sectors alike say that other changes have also had an impact. Many employers have introduced programmes to reduce sick days in recent years. For example, many insist that staff who are sick must speak in person to a manager on the phone rather than leave a message or email.
Perhaps even more significant is the rapid growth of working from home, they say, when staff who feel unwell will often carry out lighter duties rather than take a day off sick.
Frances O’Grady, general-secretary of the TUC, said that too many people were struggling in to work while suffering from colds or flu when they would be better off at home.
“We are really a nation of mucus troopers, with people more likely to go to work when ill than stay at home when well,” she said.
Research carried out by the TUC in the winter months found that half a million employees went to work despite feeling terrible because they did not like to let down their clients, colleagues or employer.
The rate of absenteeism in the public sector has fallen from a high of 4.3 per cent to 2.9 per cent, but it is still higher than the private sector’s rate of 1.7 per cent. Within the public sector, the health service had the highest rate of sickness, at 3.5 per cent.
Minor illnesses such as colds were the most common reason for missing work last year, accounting for 25 per cent of days, followed by musculoskeletal problems such as back pain, which accounted for 22.4 per cent.
Mental health problems including stress, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia resulted in 15.8 million days being lost — 11.5 per cent of the total. Stomach upsets accounted for 6.6 per cent and headaches and migraines 3.4 per cent.
Older workers take the most days off sick, with the rate among the over-65s being 2.9 per cent — higher than in 1993, when it was 2.7 per cent. They are followed by those aged 50 to 64, with a rate of 2.7 per cent, although this has fallen sharply since 1993 when it was 4.4 per cent. Those aged 25 to 34 take the fewest days off, with a rate of 1.5 per cent.
Employees have a higher rate of sickness absence than the self-employed. Last year it was 2.1 per cent for employees and 1.4 per cent for the self-employed. People in Wales and Scotland took the most time off for illness, while those in London and the southeast took the least, the ONS found.