Questions and answers about coronavirus and the UK economy
Questions and answers about coronavirus and the UK economy

Did sickness absence among UK workers rise or fall in 2020?

New data on the UK labour market indicate that there has not been an increase in overall sickness absence during the pandemic. But there has been a rise in working hours lost among key workers and other occupations that put staff in direct contact with the public.

On 3 March 2021, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released data on ‘Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2020'. The report reveals whether sickness absence among UK workers has risen or fallen in 2020. It may have risen due to direct effects of the pandemic. Equally, it may have fallen if other illnesses were mitigated due to lockdowns, shielding, social distancing, working from home and the furlough scheme.

Although the ONS sickness absence reports produce data for numerous population statistics, only a subset are illustrated in the reports. Here, several subsets are illustrated so we can gain further insights into the impact of the pandemic.

A key finding is that rates of sickness absence – based entirely on working hours recorded in the UK’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) and Annual Population Survey (APS) data – have not changed substantially. This may reflect the success of government guidance and policy.

But total sick days did fall in 2020, and this may mirror reduced working hours due to the furlough scheme and other reductions. What’s more, clear effects of the pandemic are evident among some occupations as well as for workers with certain long-term illnesses.

How is sickness absence measured in the ONS reports?

Annual labour market sickness absence is measured in four ways in the ONS reports. The charts below are mainly based on the first two measures:

  • Working days lost due to sickness absence: this is the total number of working days lost across the UK calculated using micro-data, population projections and assuming an average length working day of 7.5 hours. The ONS states that the latest values are likely to be revised when new population projections become available.
  • Sickness absence percentage rate: this is based entirely on working hours recorded in the LFS and the APS. It requires no population projections and is unlikely to require substantial revisions.
  • Working days lost per worker: this is based on working days lost due to sickness absence divided by the total number of people in employment.
  • Percentage of total sick days: this is based on working days lost due to sickness absence in each category, divided by the total working days lost due to sickness absence, expressed as a percentage.

What have been the overall annual patterns in sickness absence before and during the pandemic?

The picture is somewhat mixed depending on which measure of sickness absence we consider. Figure 1 shows estimated annual total days and the percentage of working hours lost due to sickness absence.

Total working days lost fell substantially in 2020, but this may be due to a combination of fewer people in work and other measures such as social distancing.

Working hours lost as a percentage also fell in 2020, but only in line with its own long-term trend. It could be that the various government measures simply maintained rates of sickness absence per worker. This measure, based on the percentage of total working hours, is not reliant on population projections and therefore unlikely to change with data revisions.

Figure 1: UK workers’ sick days, total days and days per worker

Source: Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2018, ONS

Figure 2 shows sickness absence rates (as percentages of working hours) falling for both men and women. The trend has continued into 2020, again suggesting the possible effectiveness of government policies.

Figure 2: UK workers’ sickness absence rates (percentage of working hours), by gender

Source: Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2018, ONS

What are the detailed patterns in sickness absence before and during the pandemic?

There are interesting patterns in sickness absence as a percentage of working hours, especially if we consider detailed patterns along various demographic dimensions.

Figure 3 illustrates the sickness absence rates for different age groups. Although older people are more likely to experience severe Covid-19 symptoms if they become infected, no substantial change in absences is observed in 2020. There appears to be a large increase in the sickness absence rate for those aged 65 or over, but this is within past fluctuations. Workers aged 65 or over are likely to be a self-selected group whose general health is better than non-workers in the same age group.

Figure 3: UK workers’ sickness absence rates (percentage of working hours), by age

Source: Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2018, ONS

Figure 4 illustrates workers’ sickness absence days as a percentage of the total by reason given for the illness. Only two of these show a substantial increase in 2020. There is a sudden 5% increase for workers suffering from ‘Other’ illnesses including ‘infectious diseases’. There is also an increase from 2.8% to 5.3% in sickness absence for workers who report suffering from ‘respiratory conditions’.

But the data in Figure 4 come with an important caveat that chimes with the patterns we see. According to footnote 6 in Table 4a of the ONS sickness absence report: ‘From April 2020, interviewers were advised to code any mention of coronavirus as ‘Other’, however it is believed people could self-report this as ‘Minor illnesses’ or ‘Respiratory conditions’.’

Figure 4: UK workers’ sickness absence days (percentage of total by illness type)

Source: Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2018, ONS

Figure 5 illustrates patterns of sickness absence by occupation. Three occupational groups exhibit substantial increases in 2020. One is ‘Skilled trades’, which includes skilled workers such as mechanics and other specific building trades. Another is ‘Services’, which includes the caring professions such as nursing auxiliaries. The third group is ‘Elementary’, which includes occupations such as cleaners and hospital porters.

Figure 5: UK workers’ sickness absence rates (percentage of working hours), by occupation

Source: Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2018, ONS

Figure 6 illustrates summary data that are new in these ONS reports. These have been especially created to measure sickness absence rates for ‘key workers’ – those deemed to be providers of essential services during the pandemic. This enables us to observe some occupational categories, such as medical professionals, that are otherwise mixed in with other occupations in Figure 5.

Key worker groups that experienced an increase in sickness absence include: ‘Health and social care’, ‘Public safety and national security’, ‘Food and necessary goods’ and ‘Key public services’. These seem to be occupations that cannot be fulfilled remotely and which put workers in direct contact with the public.

In contrast, all other occupational groups have experienced a fall in sickness absence rates between 2019 and 2020.

Figure 6: UK workers’ sickness absence rates (percentage of working hours), by key worker status

Source: Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2018, ONS

Summary

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 has not led to an increase in overall sickness absence in the UK workforce (Figure 1). But the circumstantial evidence suggests that this was thanks to preventative measures taken by the government and the population at large.

Nonetheless, there is evidence of substantial increases of workers who report suffering from ‘respiratory conditions’ and other conditions that include ‘infectious diseases’ (see Figure 4). There is also evidence of substantial pandemic effects for key workers and non-key workers in occupations that put them in direct contact with the public (see Figures 5 and 6).

In 2020, the UK had two pandemic peaks, the combined magnitude of which, in terms of hospitalisations and deaths, is equivalent to those experienced in just the first quarter of 2021 at the time of writing. It may be that 2021 will present an even more acute situation if the pandemic does not subside. We will only know the impact of our current actions when new data become available.

Where can I find out more?

Author: Marco Ercolani
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