Why are we no longer taking sick days?


If you’re ever come down with a bad cold on a weekday, the chances are you’ve dosed up on painkillers, stuffed tissues into your bag and headed into work anyway. And like the likelihood is, you’ve infected the person next to you, and the person next to them.

In the UK, the number of days taken off because of sickness dropped to a record low last year. The Office for National Statistics found the average number of sick days taken by UK workers fell to 4.1 days in 2017, a sharp decline from the 7.2 days recorded in 1993 when the data was first collected.

So are we really just a healthier workforce, or are there other reasons why we aren’t calling in sick – perhaps when we should?

Whether we’re sick enough to take a day off is a source of contention among workers, as there’s no specific rulebook which states just how unwell you should be. In many workplaces, though, stigma surrounding taking time off due to illness prevents many people from staying at home to recover.

Presenteeism, or people coming into work when they are ill, has more than tripled since 2010, according to a 2018 survey by CIPD and Simply Health. The research found 86% of over 1,000 respondents said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010.

There are several reasons why employees are coming into work when they are physically or mentally unwell. Fears over job insecurity or a lack of pay when absent are key issues, as is the fear of looking lazy or a heavy workload. If you’re afraid of losing your job or earning less money when you’re ill, you’re more likely to force yourself into the office.

“Sickness absence is low because presenteeism is high,” Sir Cary Cooper, a professor at Manchester Business School, said in response to the ONS data.

“Given the aftermath of the recession and with Brexit looming people are frightened to be off ill, so they show ‘facetime’ when ill or feeling low or job dissatisfied. They do not want high levels of absenteeism on their HR record, which they feel will make them vulnerable.”

Moreover, only a handful or companies are addressing the issue. Only a quarter of those who responded to the CIPD survey saying they have experienced presenteeism said their organisation has taken steps to discourage it over the last year.

This is, however, to the detriment of organisations. People are significantly less productive when they are unwell, and coming into work and posing a risk to other staff too. And if you’re ill, you’re more likely to make mistakes, too.

As a result, presenteeism can actually be more expensive for a business. Research from Nottingham Business School (NBS) in 2017 found that the average UK employee spends almost two weeks a year at work while ill – costing firms more than £4,000 per person due to low productivity.