UK workers take fewer sick days in 2020 despite coronavirus

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the UK’s sickness absence rate declined from 1.9% to 1.8% last year – the lowest level since its records began in 1995, when the rate was 3.1%.

While the virus had caused many sick days, the measures taken to contain it, such as furloughing, social distancing, shielding and homeworking, appeared to have helped reduce other causes of absence.

Despite the shadow cast by the pandemic over the world of work, the measure still provides a reliable barometer as it reflects total hours lost as a proportion of total hours worked, so is not skewed by the government’s furlough scheme.

In 2020 nearly half of all Britons did at least some of their work remotely, the ONS said, and this, together with social distancing rules in the workplace, may have led to less exposure to germs and minimised some of the usual sickness absences.

Homeworking could allow people to work from home when they were a little unwell, they might not have travelled to a workplace but feel well enough to work from home, it explained of the perhaps unexpected decline.

Minor illnesses such as colds and flu were still the biggest single reason for being off sick last year at 26.1% but that tally was 4.3 percentage points lower than in 2019. Coronavirus had accounted for 14% of sickness absences since last April, the ONS said.

In all 118.6m working days were lost because of sickness or injury in 2020, equating to 3.6 days for each worker. Although this is the lowest level since records began in 1995, the ONS warned this measure should be treated cautiously as the data included millions of furloughed workers.

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