The number of working days lost to illness in the UK hit a record last year, according to official figures published on Wednesday, further fueling fears about the impact of ill-health on the economy.
Minor illnesses were the main reason people took sick leave, although Covid-19 was still a significant factor, the National Statistics Office said. The ONS also noted that respiratory illnesses have overtaken mental health problems to become the fourth most common cause of illness.
It estimated the number of working days lost due to illness or injury to 185.6 million in 2022, 47.4 million more than the pre-pandemic level and a new record.
According to the ONS, the rate of sickness absence – or the percentage of working hours lost due to illness or injury – will rise to 2.6 per cent in 2022 from 2.2 per cent in 2021 and the highest level since 2004.
The increase is a sharp rebound from the low levels of absenteeism at the peak of the outbreak, when many workers were laid off and social distancing led to a reduction in minor illnesses. But it also marks a worrying reversal of a long-term trend: disease rates have been falling since the 1990s, reflecting the changing nature of work, and were relatively flat in the years before the pandemic.
In last month’s budget, British Chancellor Jeremy Hunt made increasing the size of the workforce and increasing productivity a key priority for boosting economic growth. The figures raise concerns among policymakers that rising ill-health and acute pressure on the NHS are putting people out of work and weighing on the economy.
Since 2019, the number of people who say that they do not work or are not looking for a job due to their long-term health condition has increased by half a million.
The Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, which sets interest rates, said the jump was one reason why labor shortages and accompanying wage pressures risk high inflation being more persistent in the UK than elsewhere.
The number of people with chronic health conditions also increased. Wednesday’s data showed that sickness absence rate for this group rose to 4.9 percent in 2022, the highest level since 2008, compared to 1.5 percent for other workers.
Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Congress of Trade Unions, the umbrella body of the British labor movement, said even these figures underestimate the true level of illness, as many low-paid workers are not entitled to sick pay and others cannot receive the “stingy” amount of statutory sick pay.
Separate data published by the ONS showed that there was no improvement last year in the UK’s persistently weak productivity – the key long-term determinant of living standards.
The increase in output per hour in the fourth quarter of 2022 did not change compared to a year earlier, the ONS said. Emissions per worker were 0.2 and 0.3 percent lower, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Public Policy Research said in a report published on Thursday that the UK’s poor health situation is taking a toll on the economy.
The think tank found that since 2020, a person with a new physical illness saw their annual earnings fall on average by around £1,400, while the onset of a mental illness reduced their earnings by around £1,700. The reduction in earnings of those living in a household with the illness was £1,200.
Although these costs were lower than in the five years before the pandemic, the IPPR said they were “life-changing” for many, with two-fifths of those affected losing 10 percent of their income due to leaving their jobs. they reduce their working hours or are unable to work again.