2nd Aug 2023
3 Min Read

Sickness absence is at an all time high. What can businesses do?

Russell Norton
Russell Norton
Health & wellbeing

Sickness absence for UK workers is the highest it’s been for nearly two decades according to ONS data. Here’s how businesses can help support the wellbeing of their people.

In 2022, the percentage of working hours lost because of sickness or injury was 2.6 per cent – the highest it’s been since 2004. That’s 185.6 million working days lost across all age groups. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) estimates that sickness costs the British economy £43bn every year, so we can’t ignore this upward rise.

Notable trends in the data include more absence due to respiratory conditions – in other words, the lingering effects of coronavirus – and women being disproportionately affected. While the sickness absence rate for men rose by 2.2 per cent in 2022, it rose by 3.2 per cent in women. This also showed up in the rates for contract types; 3.7 per cent for part-time workers compared to 2.4 per cent for full-time workers.

On that topic, it’s notable that London had the lowest rate of sickness absence, while Wales, Scotland and the North-East of England had the highest, following similar geographical divisions to gaps in pay and prospects.

Any impact of sickness is going hit disadvantaged groups harder – women, people on low pay and people from minority and marginalised backgrounds.

And that impact has financial consequences. Someone with a new physical illness can expect their income to fall on average by £1,800 per year, and a new mental health condition can lead to an average fall of £2,200 per year.

All this adds to a gloomy picture. In fact, the IPPR report showed that since 1960 the UK had fallen from 7th to 23rd for life expectancy among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development group of wealthy countries.

Where does the responsibility of employers start and stop?

So, health in general is getting worse and sickness is on the rise, and that’s causing a strain on the economy, businesses and individuals. But in the UK, we have a free healthcare system – so what responsibility should realistically fall onto the shoulders of organisations?

Some would say absolutely none at all. The taxation system is there to fund the healthcare system – why should organisations face any additional burden?

Others would take a more reactive approach. They offer health insurance as a benefit to make us more competitive as an employer. Insurance gives their people priority access to good quality healthcare which means they’re more likely to receive treatment for any ailments and will spend less time away from work. That support is also likely to drive loyalty, encouraging employees to stay even when faced with a good offer by another employer.

There are some who take an even more proactive approach. By focusing on the holistic health and wellbeing of their employees, some organisations are doing all they can to stop employees from getting sick in the first place. This includes free or subsidised healthy lunches, onsite gyms, financial education, access to mental health support, mentorship and learning on key health issues. That might extend to family members too, so that employees don’t need to take time off to care for their immediate family.

This can have positive ripple effects too. Leading economists have stated that wellbeing is the number one driver of productivity. By freeing employees from the burden of poor physical or mental wellbeing, or the stress of poor financial wellbeing, organisations can help their people to focus fully on the task at hand.

The extent to which an organisation invests in the health of its people will be down to its unique set of circumstances and, of course, the costs involved. But the financial impact of sickness absence can’t be ignored, nor can the risk of losing great talent due to the strain of dealing with sickness.

The stark reality is that doing what we’ve always done will only deliver what we’ve had before. Organisations looking for the next leap forward in productivity and growth may find that focusing on the health and wellbeing of their people will give them a new competitive advantage.




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