TUC analysis has found a quarter (23%) of the UK workforce had to rely on statutory sick pay (SSP) if they needed to self-isolate during the pandemic.
The average worker faced a £418 drop in monthly earnings if they had to self-isolate on SSP, which was £94 a week.
Paul Nowak, TUC general secretary, described the sick pay system as “an act of self-sabotage” and called for reform.
He said: “Many workers simply couldn’t afford to self-isolate. This pushed up infection rates, put a huge strain on our public services and ballooned the cost of Test and Trace.
“The UK entered the pandemic with the most miserly rate of sick pay in the OECD. This cost us dear.”
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Freedom of information requests from the TUC found the Treasury spent double the amount on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme (£840 million) than it did on financial support for those self-isolating (£385 million).
SSP also fell by 1.25% in real terms between 2010 and 2019.
In 2019 sick pay was worth 18% of average earnings – compared with 34% when it was first introduced in 1983.
Far from a pandemic-only problem Suzanne Marshall, head of clinical strategy at employee wellbeing platform GoodShape, said financial hardship stops workers taking the sick days that they need.
Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Our recent research with YouGov found 52% said they’d feel concerned about money if they needed to take off sick.
"This is potentially leading them to continue working and suffering longer-term health conditions as a result – not to mention risking the health of their colleagues, customers, and communities.”
Being financially compelled to work while ill, she added, has an impact on employees’ mental and physical health, as well as productivity.
Marshall said: “There’s an argument that being less financially able to support themselves while sick could also impact on workers’ mental health and similarly prolong illness.
“And there’s even the risk that employees may feel forced to ‘extend’ sickness to meet the three days necessary to qualify for any SSP.”
Marshall said employers should consider preventative measures to ensure their workers’ good health and wellbeing.
She said: “Healthier workers equal less sick pay. And in an ideal world, nurturing healthier workforces is where organisations would focus all their wellbeing budgets and attention.
“But, as the Covid pandemic proved, there will always be threats to human health, and unpredictable challenges for employers around the corner. Ensuring you’re as well prepared as possible is the key.”
Ongoing this year, the independent public inquiry will examine the UK’s response to and impact of the coronavirus pandemic to prepare for future crises.
It will consider the country’s preparedness for such an event, the public health response, the response in the health and care sector and the economic response.
Full details of the inquiry can be found here.