The days of calling up the boss to cough down the line and weakly say you are too ill to come into work before lying in bed with daytime television are over.
The Office for National Statistics said that the number of sickness days had almost halved over the past two decades to reach a record low. It dropped from an average of 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017 and had been steadily falling since 1999. The total days lost for all workers last year was 131.2 million, down from 137.3 million in 2016 and 178.3 million in 1993.
Some employment groups have argued that this fall damages the economy because it suggests workers worried about job security are still coming into work even when ill, lowering their productivity levels.
In May the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that the number of companies reporting a rise in employees going into work when they were ill had more than tripled since 2010 and warned that organisations should do more to discourage “presenteeism”.
The ONS acknowledged that there may be an increase in people going into work even when they are ill, but added that the fall could also be due to our healthy life expectancy improving.
The figures also showed that the average number of sick days taken in the private sector is much lower than in the public sector, suggesting that these workers are avoiding sick days as they are at risk of not being paid.
The sickness absence rate, which measures the working hours over the year that are lost to sickness, stands at 2.6 per cent in the public sector and 1.7 per cent in the private sector.
The ONS said: “Higher sickness absence in the public sector is partly explained by the profile of the workforce: it employs more older people and women, both of whom tend to have higher rates of sickness absence; it is more likely to employ staff with a long-standing health condition who are more likely to go off sick and tends to offer more generous sick pay arrangements.”
Since the financial crash, sickness absence rates have declined by 0.5 percentage points to 1.9 per cent last year.
Coughs and colds remained the biggest cause of people taking time off work, making up 26.2 per cent of days lost through sickness absence last year, which equates to about 34.3 million days.
However, the figures also found that there was a rise in young workers aged between 25 and 34 who took time off with mental health problems — the rate in this category rose from 7.2 per cent in 2009 to 9.6 per cent last year.
Women were more likely than men to cite mental health conditions as the reason for being off sick, at about 8.1 per cent of women compared with 5.7 per cent of men. The ONS said that this might be because men were less likely to seek medical help for mental health problems than women.