Sickness figures raise questions over absenteeism claims

May 27 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

More than two million people – approximately five per cent of the British working population – took time off for work-related illness last year, according to latest figures from the Health & Safety Executive.

The figure – a relatively low proportion – raises questions about complaints by business leaders earlier this month that some 14 per cent of workplace absence is not genuine.

The annual HSE figures reported that an estimated 29.8 million working days were lost to work-related illness in the past 12 months, with on average, each person suffering took an estimated 22 days off work in that 12-month period.

Averaged across the working population this represented an annual loss of 1.3 days per worker, it said.

Musculoskeletal disorders – such as repetitive strain injury or backache – were the most common cause of absence, followed by stress, depression or anxiety.

Workers in the "protective services" (police, fire and prison service) had the highest absence rates, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Health and social workers were next, followed by the construction and building trades, teachers and research professionals and skilled metal and electrical trades.

A very public argument broke out between the CBI and TUC earlier this month when the employers' body claimed in its annual absence figures that £1.7 billion of the total £12.2 billion cost of absence, as it had calculated, was from workers "pulling sickies", particularly public sector workers.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber accused the organisation of "anti-public sector bias" and pointed out that the amount of unpaid overtime carried out by UK workers dwarfed the cost of absence anyway.