The number of working days in the UK lost to sickness absence has risen for the first time in five years, according to a new survey.
The Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) annual absence survey shows the number of working days lost in 2003 rose by 10 million to 176 million, a 6 per cent rise.
The cost to employers in lost productivity was some £11.6bn.
The figures mean that the average British worker took 7.2 days off last year - an increase of half a day on 2002.
But while the total number of days lost in 2003 showed an increase, the CBI calculated that the cost to employers remained the same because firms were dealing with absenteeism better.
The service sector saw the sharpest rise in days lost, with absenteeism rising by eight per cent.
And once again, the survey found that absenteeism levels among public sector workers was significantly higher than their private sector counterparts.
Absence in the public sector averaged almost two days per head higher at 8.9 days a year Ė at a cost of £566 per employee - compared to an average of 6.9 days costing £450 per employee in the private sector.
The CBI pointed out that public sector absence costs some £4 billion a year and added that the UK taxpayer would save £1bn a year if public-sector absence could be brought into line with private sector levels.
"Firms understand that the majority of absence is due to genuine minor sickness. But absence is a serious and expensive concern that is on the increase," said the CBI's deputy director general John Cridland.
"Unwarranted long weekends and staff 'pulling sickies' are taking their toll on the UK's ability to absorb the enormous cost of absence."
And he added that companies are particularly concerned about staff "awarding themselves days off" during this summer's Euro 2004 football championship.
Employers believe that 'pulling sickies' accounts for 15 per cent of all absence or 25 million days a year costing them £1.75bn.
Almost eight out of ten (78 per cent) of the 500 companies that took part in the survey said they suspected some staff of extending their weekends by calling in sick on Fridays or Mondays.
In general, the survey found that large organisations had the biggest absenteeism problem. In firms employing more than 5,000 people the number of sick days averaged 10.2 days per worker, whereas in companies with fewer than 50 staff, absence averaged just 4.2 days.
According to the CBI, the disparity is because employees in small companies have more frequent contact with senior management and are under greater pressure from their peers to turn up for work.
Manual workers and manufacturing staff showed some of the highest absence rates.
John Cridland said that the cost of workplace absence was "worryingly high", but he accepted that tough trading conditions during 2003 had forced many firms, particularly those in the service sector, to shed staff.
"This would have increased pressure on employees and possibly affected morale, leading to an increase in absence," he said.
However the TUC accused employers of being the authors of their own destiny. General secretary Brendan Barber said that over three quarters of sickness absence is made up of people on long-term sick leave and blamed employers for failing to prevent and deal with serious illnesses such as stress, back pain and occupational asthma.
"The increase in sickness absence reported in the CBI's survey shows that employers, particularly in the service sector, continue to make workers ill through overwork, bad management and outdated work methods," Barber said.
"The TUC and the CBI need to work together to get employers to concentrate on keeping staff healthy and in work, which should be even more important in a struggling sector.
"And when people are made ill, they should concentrate on getting workers healthy and back to work."