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Sickness Absence Rates Soar in Health and Social Care

The number of days lost to sickness absence in the UK increased to a record high in 2022, with absences among health and social care workers remaining consistently higher than for other major employment groups, official figures showed.

Respiratory illnesses overtook mental health conditions to become the fourth most common reason for sickness absence last year, according to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Minor illnesses rose sharply to almost the same proportion of occurrences as before the pandemic, whilst 'other' conditions, which included COVID-19, slumped to second place in the list after being the top reason given in 2021.

The sickness absence rate – defined as the proportion of working hours lost because of illness or injury – rose to 2.6% in 2022, which was an increase of 0.4% compared with the previous year, and the highest rate since 2004, when it stood at 2.7%. David Freeman, head of labour market and household statistics at the ONS, said: "This comes after it dropped to its lowest ever rate at the start of the pandemic, when lockdown and furloughing reduced people's exposure to minor illnesses." 

Although the estimated 185.6 million working days lost due to sickness or injury was a record high, the 5.7 days lost per worker was not, reflecting the UK's increasing population in past decades.

Sickness absence rates increased in all age groups last year, and were higher in women (3.2%) than in men (2.2%).

Sickness Absences in Health and Social Care

Sickness absence rates in health and social care stood at 4.2% last year, which was the highest rate among 16 industry sectors. The figure was up 0.8% on 2021, and higher than the 3% recorded in 2020 and the 2.9% in 2019. 

Statisticians noted that 40.3 million working days were lost in health and social care in 2022, up from 31.8 million the previous year. Days lost from sickness in the sector was almost twice that of the next highest sector, wholesale and retail, and more than two times higher than for teachers and other education workers.

The number of days lost per worker in health and social care last year was 8.9, compared with 7.1 in 2021, 6.0 in 2020, and 5.9 in 2019 .

'Absenteeism is Soaring'

Ben Keighley, founder of social media recruitment specialist Socially Recruited, commented: "While COVID continues to contribute directly to sickness rates in the workplace, its greatest impact is being seen in the care industries coping with its legacy. Absenteeism is soaring, particularly among staff who were on the frontline during the pandemic." 

Older workers and people working part-time were also among groups with the highest rate of sickness. And at 4.9%, the sickness absence rate for those with long-term health conditions was at its highest point since 2008, when it stood at 5.1%, the statistics showed.

Among the main health reasons given for absence at work in 2022 were:

  • Minor illnesses (29.3%)
  • Other (23.8%)
  • Musculoskeletal problems (10.5%)
  • Respiratory conditions (8.3%)
  • Mental health conditions (7.9%)
  • Gastrointestinal problems (5.4%)
  • Headaches and migraines (3.5%)

Rates of absence due to ill health were highest in Wales (3.6%) and the North East of England (3.1%) and lowest in London (2.1%) and the East of England (2.2% ).