MAGGIE PAGANO: The huge increase in sick leave is putting even greater pressure on employers
Over the last year, British workers have taken an average of 7.8 days of sick leave, two days more than before the Covid pandemic and the highest figure in more than a decade.
It’s a shocking increase and particularly disturbing given the large number of employees citing mental health and stress as the reason for their absence.
The survey, published today by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and cash health plan provider Simplyhealth, is even more disturbing because it reflects such a large cohort of workers – 6.5 million from 918 organisations.
It shows that 40 per cent of workers took short-term sick leave due to mental health issues, while a staggering 63 per cent cited this as the cause of long-term illness.
Stay in bed: Over the last year, British workers have taken an average of 7.8 days of sick leave, two days more than before the Covid pandemic and the highest figure in more than a decade.
The long tail of Covid is also very much alive. More than a third of companies say workers are furloughed due to the virus.
Needless to say, this rise in illness is neither good for the people involved nor for a health service that is already under pressure. Likewise, it puts even greater pressure on employers.
However, these figures should not surprise us. The Office for National Statistics reported earlier this year that the percentage of working hours lost due to illness rose to 2.6 per cent in 2022, the highest since 2004.
Translated, this equates to 185.6 million lost work days, another record.
If you add the number of days lost to the 2.5 million “economically inactive” people due to long-term illness (more than half a million since Covid) who are now out of the workforce, you can see the depth of the disease in Britain.
Sadly, we seem to be at the top of our class, having much higher levels of disease (and obesity) than our continental cousins.
And it’s getting worse. Another report, A Pact for Health, confirmed that millions of people are falling ill prematurely and dropping out of the workforce altogether.
Written by two former health ministers with experts from The King’s Fund, they estimate that illness cost the economy £15bn over the past year due to higher social care costs and lower tax revenues. His warning was stark: unless quick action is taken, the numbers will continue to rise.
What can be done? The CIPD suggests that companies should create a more supportive working environment where staff can talk openly about problems, helping them to work more flexibly or providing alternative healthcare support.
An increasing number of companies offer these types of “wellness” services.
Obviously, a much greater national effort is needed across the board if we are to resolve this crisis.
If companies – and indeed unions – care about such nebulous concepts as diversity and inclusion, which they keep saying, getting workers back on their feet is of far greater value than sitting around meeting quotas.
They should read Dr Adrian Massey’s book, Sick-Note Britain, in which he argues that society has become so hyper-medicalised that many falsely equate illness with illness and illness with inability to work.
In other words, disease is primarily a social problem that requires social, not medical, solutions.
More provocatively, Massey argues that one of the most protective things about mental health is not spending much of our lives consciously obsessing about it.
Instead of handing out casualties, GPs should send patients to see dietitians or the pool. Some GP surgeries have started to do this.
We should also examine the role of discharge, a concept that has not changed since it was introduced after World War II. Perhaps the sick person is no longer fit for purpose.