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Cath Everett

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Sickness absence rates back at pre-recession levels


Absence rates due to sickness had returned to pre-recession levels by the end of last year, but in overall terms have fallen over the last decade, official figures have revealed.


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The Office for National Statistics found that, during the last three months of 2010, 613,000 employees or 2.5% had taken at least one day off work due to illness in the week before they were questioned, a rise of 2.1% on the first quarter of 2009. This meant that two million working days were lost over the period.
But the rate of sickness absence had fallen to record lows in the aftermath of the financial crisis when health experts warned that workers were forcing themselves into work while genuinely ill over fears that they could lose their jobs in the difficult economic climate. This situation resulted instead in the phenomenon of presenteeism.
Absence rates have remained consistently higher among women and public sector workers, however. Other than minor illnesses such as coughs and colds, the top reason for men to be off work was musculoskeletal problems, while the main cause for women was stress, depression and anxiety.
The figures also found that, while an average of 3.1% of public sector workers were absent in the October to December quarter, the figure was more like 2.3% in the private sector. John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, told the Daily Telegraph that the discrepancy was likely the result of public sector employees being less engaged in the face of widespread job cuts.
“In the private sector, many employers told their workforce that they needed to take a wage cut, and there was an element of workers agreeing to worse terms in the hope that they would see an improvement once the economy picked up,” he said.
But Philpott assumed from the figures that many public sector employees felt that job cuts were simply a fait accompli. “Perhaps – and some of this is down to working in very large organisations – there is less quid pro quo and they have responded by being less engaged and committed to their jobs,” he said.
The ONS figures were released a week after the Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review into sickness absence led by Dame Carol Black, the national director for health and work, and David Frost, the outgoing director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.