Sickness absences fall to lowest rate in 15 years, highlighting work from home pitfall

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, UK sickness absence fell last year, sparking fears that employees are continuing to work while ill and working from home.

The number of sick days employees take is now down to 2.2% of working time, compared with 2.7% in 2019 and 2.5% in 2018.

XpertHR began gathering data 15 years ago on the amount of time UK employees take off for work due to sickness, and this year has been the lowest ever recorded.

The average employee took five sickness days in 2020, falling by more than a full day from 6.4 days in 2019.

Reasons for sick days in the UK:

Mental health named most common reason for employees to lie about sick days

Inflexible work forcing fathers to take sick days for childcare

Sick leave: The skive’s the limit?

Noelle Murphy, senior HR practice editor at XpertHR, warned a fall in sickness absence is perhaps an unintended consequence of the restrictions put in place to mitigate COVID-19.

Homeworking, shielding, and the furlough scheme were noted as potential reasons for the decrease and mitigating the levels of sickness absence.

Murphy told HR magazine: “Working from home is set to continue to some extent in hybrid working arrangements, and with it, a new set of challenges for our HR community. 

“Remote working brings a specific challenge when it comes to employees working when unwell and HR needs to take the lead in discouraging employees logging on to work when not fit to do so.”

Many employees may feel the need to be more present while working remotely, said Murphy.

“Particularly when other members of their team are in the office, so people managers need to set clear parameters around taking sickness absence leave when unwell.”

Much of the feedback to XpertHR’s sickness absence survey focused on those employees who did not feel well enough to carry out the commute but were able to carry out their job remotely.

Murphy said this needs to be managed carefully so that employees feel comfortable taking the time needed to recover.

“HR will need to engage with people managers to ensure consistency of treatment for all employees around sickness absence, irrespective of where they are based,” she said.

Kate Underwood, managing director and HR director at Kate Underwood HR and Training, said the pandemic has accentuated a work culture that is always 'on' and doesn't switch off.

She told HR magazine: "In turn, this has created expectations that are unrealistic in some situations.

“While the flexibility to have lunch in your garden is great, it has also increased pressure and output for many employees to the degree they feel like they can't take a day off sick

"Employers need to ensure that now, more than ever, staff have a work/life balance otherwise we are going to have a lot of stress and burnout, which could turn a couple of days off into weeks or even months."

Underwood said communication is key and employers need to ensure they are spending valuable time one on one with their team and really understanding how they are.