The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported sickness absences are down almost 50% since 1993.

In 1993 workers took an average of 7.2 sick days per year, compared to 4.1 in 2017.  Records show workplace absence due to sickness started to fall in 1999.

Those in the public sector took more time off for illness than those in the private sphere.  Reasons cited for this include that the public sector employs more older workers and women (who are more likely to take sick days to care for dependents).  Larger organisations claimed a greater percentage of sick days, suggesting that those who worked in companies with fewer than 25 employees may be under pressure to turn up for work due to lack of cover.

The media has linked the fall in work hours to a culture of presenteeism; however, jumping to such a conclusion ignores key workplace developments which have occurred over the past quarter of a century – namely:

  • Since the mid-to-late 2000s, many workers have been able to work remotely.  Before high-speed broadband and smartphones, those suffering an illness which required them to stay at home were not able to be at all productive.  Nowadays, if an employee is suffering from a heavy cold, they can still be productive, with many choose to work from home rather than drag themselves into the office.
  • The population is getting healthier. The introduction of vaccines such as the ‘flu shot’ for children in 2013-14 has helped contain the spread of seasonal viruses.  Smoking and drinking rates continue to fall and people, especially those over 40, are more conscious of exercise and a healthy diet.

Despite this, employers need to be aware of ensuring a culture of presenteeism does not develop, or else risk a claim in the Employment Tribunal.  One area of absenteeism which was shown to be on the increase in the ONS report was that related to mental health, especially among those aged between 25 to 34 years, rising from 7.2% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2017.

If an employee does take time off for a mental health problem, an employer should consider carefully whether the issue is likely to amount to a disability. It may also be necessary to adjust processes to take account of the fact that it is dealing with a mental health problem and not a physical one. It is useful – although not always easy – to distinguish between mental health problems which are unrelated to the job itself and situations where ‘stress at work’ may arise from performance issues or personality conflicts within the workplace.

We are happy to offer advice on all complex absence issues, including ill-health dismissal and absences arising from mental health conditions.

If you need legal advice on any matters raised in this article, please do get in touch.