UK workers’ sickness rate at record low!

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a report on UK workers’ sickness rates on 9 March 2017. It was reported that an estimated 137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016, this is equivalent to 4.3 days per worker (the lowest recorded since the series began in 1993, when it was at 7.2 days per worker, the highest level over the reference period).

Minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds were the most common reasons for sickness absence last year, accounting for approximately 24.8% of the total days lost.

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress said that the fall in the sickness rate showed “it is a myth that UK workers are always throwing sickies”. She also said “we are really a nation of mucus troopers, with people more likely to go to work when ill than stay at home when well”. Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School at Manchester University, said that people were frightened of taking time off for sickness, and that this was a direct threat to workplace productivity.

In spite of these record low statistics, issues surrounding sickness absence are common in the workplace and there is often confusion as to whether an employee on sickness leave is entitled to pay, and if so how much they are entitled to. Although there is no statutory right to receive full pay for time spent away from work by reason of sickness, the minimum standard is that employees are entitled to receive statutory sick pay (SSP). SSP entitles the sick employee to £89.35 per week (after an initial period of three days sick without pay) payable for up to 28 weeks in any one period of sickness.

Employees may also be entitled to receive full, or reduced, remuneration if their contract of employment or sickness policy specifically entitles them to this. It might seem easy to check if a contract or policy provides for sick pay. However, employers should take into account the company custom and practice in regards to sickness absence, as quite often it is overlooked that these practices can create an implied term in a contract of employment particularly if it is regularly and widely adopted.

Another potential problem is abuse of sickness absence and pay. For example, if a significant proportion of the days that an employee is off sick happen to be a Friday or a Monday, it might give an employer reason to suspect absences are the result of hangovers. However, employers should be careful not to jump to conclusions and assume the employee is lying without properly investigating.

Finally, another issue that can arise is where employees and employers disagree about what the employee should be doing whilst sick. Employers should be conscious that the purpose of sick leave is for the sick employee to recuperate and that does not necessarily mean being bed ridden, it could be that travelling to a warm country is the appropriate remedy, for example in cases of depression to get better.

Dominic Bonham