MAGGIE PAGANO: The sharp increase in sick leave is putting even more pressure on employers
Last year, British workers took an average of 7.8 days off sick – two days more than before the Covid pandemic and the highest level in more than a decade.
This is a shocking increase and is particularly worrying because so many employees cite mental health and stress as reasons for their absence.
The survey, published today by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and health insurance provider Simplyhealth, is all the more worrying as it reflects such a large cohort of workers – 6.5 million from 918 organisations.
It shows that 40 percent of workers took short-term sick leave because of mental health problems, while an impressive 63 percent cited this as a cause of long-term illness.
Staying in bed: Last year, British workers took an average of 7.8 days off sick – two days more than before the Covid pandemic and the highest level in more than a decade
The long tail of Covid is also very much alive. More than a third of companies report that employees are unable to work because of the virus.
It goes without saying that this increase in cases is not good for the people affected or for the already strained healthcare system. At the same time, the pressure on employers is increasing.
Nevertheless, these numbers should not surprise us. The Office for National Statistics reported earlier this year that the percentage of sickness absence rose to 2.6 percent in 2022, the highest level since 2004.
Translated, that amounts to 185.6 million working days lost, another record.
Add the number of days lost to the 2.5 million “economically inactive” people due to long-term illnesses – an increase of over half a million since Covid – who are now out of work and the scale of Britain’s plight becomes clear.
Unfortunately, we seem to be at the top of our class, with disease and obesity rates far higher than our continental cousins.
And it keeps getting worse. Another report, A Covenant for Health, confirmed that millions are falling ill prematurely and leaving the workforce altogether.
Written by two former health secretaries along with experts from the King’s Fund, they estimate that disease cost the economy £15 billion last year due to higher welfare costs and reduced tax revenue. Their warning was urgent: if action is not taken quickly, the numbers will continue to rise.
What can be done? The CIPD suggests that companies should create a more supportive working environment where employees can talk openly about problems, to help them work more flexibly or offer them alternative health support.
More and more companies are offering such “well-being” services.
Clearly, a broader national effort is needed if we are to resolve this crisis.
If companies – and of course unions – care about such nebulous concepts as diversity and inclusion that they keep pushing, getting workers back on their feet is far more valuable than sitting around ticking off quotas.
You should Dr. Read Adrian Massey’s book Sick-Note Britain, in which he argues that society is so hypermedicalised that many mistakenly equate illness with illness and illness with incapacity.
In other words, illness is primarily a social problem that requires social, not medical, solutions.
Even more provocatively, Massey argues that one of the things that is most protective of mental health is not spending too much of our lives consciously preoccupied with it.
Instead of issuing sick notes, family doctors should send their patients to nutritionists or to the swimming pool. Some GP practices have started doing this.
We should also consider the role of sick leave, a concept that has not changed since its introduction after World War II. Perhaps the sick person no longer serves his purpose.