ONS figures show 131m working days lost, but TUC says ‘presenteeism’ is biggest workplace problem
However, that marks a fall of 26% since 1993, when 178m days were lost.
The Office of National Statistics says the amount of time lost per worker was four and a half days in 2011, which is down from just over seven days in 1993.
However, it is likely an increase in the retirement age could push the figures up again.
The most common reason given for sickness in 2011 was minor illnesses such as coughs, colds and flu, with the greatest number of working days lost due to musculoskeletal problems, such as back, neck and upper limb pains (34.4m days).
13.1m days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Workers are taking less time off sick than ever. The biggest problem workplaces face is not absenteeism but ‘presenteeism’ where workers come in when they are too ill.
“Presenteeism can multiply problems by making someone ill for longer and spreading germs around the workplace.
“Today’s figures also show that the biggest causes of long term sickness absence are musculoskeletal disorders and stress. Both of these are often as a result of a person’s work.
“Employers need to look at their working practices and see whether they can be changed to prevent ill-health, rather than try to blame workers for falling sick, which serves no good to anyone.”
Women have consistently higher sickness absence rates than men, according to the ONS, but both genders have seen a fall over the past 20 years.
Men have gone from losing around 2.5% of their hours due to sickness in 1993 to around 1.5% in 2011. Over the same period, women have seen a reduction in hours lost from 3.3% to 2.3%.
At a time when the government intends to force people to retire later in life, the ONS says people are generally more likely to develop health problems at older ages, and sickness absence rates also increase with age.
For workers aged 16 to 34, around 1.5% of hours were lost to sickness in 2011 compared with around 2.5% for workers aged 50 to 64.
Workers aged 65 or over lost a lower percentage of hours to sickness because those with health problems are more likely to have left the labour market altogether.
Under plans announced in the Queen’s Speech last week, the Coalition wants to increase the state retirement age to 67.
In the long term, it has been projected that children born today may not be able to retire until the age of 80.
Self-employed people took less absence than staff employees and workers in London had the lowest percentage of hours lost to sickness, at 1.3%.
The ONS says the workforce in London is on average younger, with a higher proportion of self-employed and private sector workers.
The highest percentage lost was in the North East and Wales, both at 2.5 per cent.
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