Workers in Finland, the Netherlands and Germany take the most time off sick in Europe, research has found, with Greece, Ireland and Portugal showing the lowest rates of absenteeism.
The third European Survey on Working Conditions, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggests a distinct North-South divide when it comes to taking time off for illness.
The survey of16,257 workers in the-then 15 member states of the European Union in the year 2000 found that Northern European countries had much higher rates of absenteeism, the worst offenders being Finland (24 per cent), followed by the Netherlands (20.3 per cent) and Germany (18.3 per cent).
The lowest rate of absenteeism was in Greece (6.7 per cent). Bucking the North-South trend, Ireland came second (8.3 per cent), followed by Portugal (8.4 per cent), Italy (8.5 per cent) and Spain (11.8 per cent).
The UK displayed a below-average 'Southern' absenteeism rate of 11.7 per cent, while France had a rate of 14.3 per cent.
On average, 14.5 per cent of European workers took at least one day off in 2000.
Recent figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have found that private sector employees in the UK an average of 7.8 days off work sick in 2003 compared with 10.7 days for workers in the public sector.
Britain's public sector absence bill alone costs the taxpayer £4bn a year - the equivalent of an extra 1p on income tax - while the overall cost of sickness absence to the UK economy has been estimated at £11bn a year..
"Despite its limitations, this study provides the first scientifically valid description of sickness absence across EU countries," said Dr David Gimeno, of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, who carried out the study.
The survey also discovered that men are more likely to call in sick than women. On the whole throughout Europe 15.5 per cent of men presented sick notes compared to 13.3 per cent of women.
The biggest difference between men and women is to be found in Greece, Austria and above all Luxembourg where 21.4 per cent of men called in sick and only 11.1 per cent of women. However in Finland and Sweden this trend is reversed.
Dr Gimeno also suggested a link between high levels of sickness absence and generous welfare benefits.
"Formally paid sickness benefit level is limited in many countries, and it seems that countries with full pay periods for temporary work incapacity (that is, Finland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria or Belgium) had higher sickness absence levels," he wrote.