Why falling sick days in the UK workplace are not a cause for celebration

British workers are taking less time off sick than ever before. But that doesn’t mean its offices are healthier. Could presenteeism be playing a part?

According to the UK Government’s official data gatherer, the Office for National Statistics, the average number of sick days taken by British workers has fallen to its lowest level since records began.

But nobody has been jumping for joy since the news came through that the number of sick days taken by British workers has dropped dramatically from 7.2 days in 1993 (the year records began) to 4.1 years in 2017. That is because nobody has been fooled into thinking British workplaces are healthier than they’ve ever been.

Indeed most experts agree that the underlying story is one of growing presenteeism (with people in an uncertain economic climate to scared to take time off when they are really sick) rather than rising health and wellbeing at work.

The Guardian’s verdict was that ‘the fall in the number of sick days could be a sign of economic weakness rather than strength.’ The paper quoted Professor Carey Cooper, the renowned expert on organisational psychology and keynote speaker at the forthcoming WORKTECH London conference, on why people are showing up for work when they shouldn’t. Cooper explained that, in the post-recession workplace, they feel vulnerable and don’t want a high level of absence on their HR record for fear of dismissal or disciplinary action.

Sickness rates down

The problem of presenteeism in the workplace, rather than absenteeism, has been around for a while. Speaking at WORKTECH Sydney in 2016, Jessica Rose Cooper, Director of Sustainability at Delos, the well building pioneer, explained how the costs of presenteeism at work are even higher than the direct costs of ill health. Since then, the issue has continued to grow and the challenge is what to do about it.

Presenteeism in the UK is not confined to private businesses. Sickness rates in Britain’s public sector (2.6%) have fallen faster than in the private sector since 2008, and are now only marginally higher than the 2.3 per cent rate in big private sector companies with 500 or more employees. Average sickness absence rate across the private sector as a whole is 1.7 per cent.

More than 25% of employees take off work with a cough or cold – this is the commonest cause of absenteeism. But back and joint pain also feature, especially among older workers over 50. Mental health conditions are a growing problem, particularly afflicting those aged 25-41. Ironically, the employees most likely to take sick leave are those who work in public health while the people least likely to phone in sick are those who work the land and sea (in agriculture, forestry and fisheries), according to the Office for National Statistics

Open plan not to blame?

At least one of the most trumpeted causes of poor workplace health – the noisy, distracting and tiring open plan office environment – might not be as bad as its detractors make out. A new study of 231 office workers in the US led by Esther Sternberg of the University of Arizona, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, concluded that people who work in fully open plan offices are generally fitter and less stressed than colleagues working in private or cubicle offices.

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