A median 2.5% of working time was lost to sickness in 2018, equivalent to 5.6 days per employee across the UK, according to the latest data from XpertHR. Sickness absence rates have not been above a median of 3% since 2010, and this is the second consecutive year that the median has been recorded as 2.5% – suggesting a new era of stability in the amount of time lost to sickness absence.

Among private-sector-services organisations, sickness absence was recorded at a median 2.2% of working time, or five days per employee. Public-sector organisations have seen absence rates drop in 2018 – to 3.8% of working time from a median 4.3% in 2017. This translates to 8.6 days per employee, down from 9.8 days in 2017. Among manufacturing and production organisations absence rates remained the same as 2017 – a median 2.4% of working time, or 5.4 days.

Almost one in three (32%) organisations told us that their sickness absence rate had decreased. Three key reasons emerged for this:

  • more emphasis on absence management through the development of line manager skills;
  • changes to sickness absence policies, including introducing or refining trigger points and return-to-work interviews; and
  • introducing a more flexible approach to time off for personal issues, that has resulted in employees taking personal leave rather than a sick day.

Increases in absence rates, recorded by roughly the same proportion of employers (29%), often related to specific issues at the organisation, such as incidences of long-term sickness absence. Many organisations referenced a growth in sickness absence due to stress, depression and mental health issues.

Cost of absence

The cost of sickness stands at a median of £517 and an average of £573 per employee per year. However, this is unlikely to be a wholly accurate measurement of the overall cost of sickness absence – just 14% of those providing figures believe their figures are very accurate.

XpertHR senior HR practice editor Noelle Murphy said:

“HR and employers continue to underestimate the total cost of sickness absence, which in turn diminishes their ability to engage line managers in this area. While sickness absence levels are enjoying a period of relative stability, employers still need to keep managing sickness absence at the forefront of people management, continuing to grow the skills and confidence of line managers in this area.”

Absence rates, 2006-2018
Calendar year % of working time, median days per employee, median
2018 2.5 5.6
2017 2.5 5.6
2016 2.9 6.6
2015 2.6 5.8
2014 2.5 5.7
2013 2.3 5.2
2012 2.6 5.9
2011 2.5 5.7
2010 2.8 6.4
2009 3.0 6.8
2008 3.1 7.1
2007 3.2 7.4
2006 3.5 8.0
Source: XpertHR.