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Absence rates and costs: 2019 XpertHR survey

Author: Noelle Murphy

XpertHR's latest survey finds that sickness absence rates remain unchanged over the past year, but employers continue to underestimate the total cost of such absence to the business.

About this survey report

This summary report covers key findings from the 2019 survey on sickness absence rates and costs, and focuses on absence figures according to industry, organisation size and sector.

XpertHR's benchmarking service has the full data on all the questions from this survey.

The median absence rate remains unchanged for 2018 - standing at 2.5% of working time throughout the UK. This translates as 5.6 days per employee, across the UK, exactly the same figure as in 2017.

Our findings are based on data from 346 organisations covering 310,561 employees and have broad coverage by sector and organisation size. The data covers the 2018 calendar year.

We analyse our findings by:

We also provide a matched sample of 26 employers that have taken part in this year's and last year's survey, and present the changes in absence rates among this group.

Headline results for sickness absence in 2018

Absence rates remain the same as recorded in 2017 - a median rate of 2.5% of working time, which translates to 5.6 days per employee. The median is the exact midpoint in the range of absence figures, and, as such, reduces the impact of exceptionally high or low figures. Among the 317 organisations providing data, the national average rate of sickness stood at 2.7%, translating to 6.3 days per employee.

We also report on the interquartile range - which focuses on the middle 50% of findings and excludes the highest and lowest figures - which shows absence rates at between 1.6% and 3.5%. This range remains unchanged from our 2017 findings. Expressing this in numbers of days' absence per employee, per year, the range falls between 3.6 and 8 days' absence.

In terms of changes to sickness absence rates, over the past 12 months almost one in three (29%) respondents told us the rate had increased. There were a few reasons given for this, primarily changes within the business that had a negative impact on employee engagement and increased levels of stress among employees. Many organisations referenced a growth in sickness absence due to stress, depression and mental health issues. Some told us that the increase in absence due to sickness was a consequence of business growth, which led to a rise in employee numbers, and, as such, an increase in sickness absence.

Some respondents also put the increase down to one or two cases of long-term sickness absence that affected their overall rate. Better recording of more accurate data was also quoted - as it can result in an initial hike in absence rates.

Almost one in three (32%) organisations told us that their sickness absence rate had decreased. Three key reasons emerged for this: more emphasis on absence management through the development of line manager skills; changes to sickness absence policy including introducing or refining trigger points and return-to-work interviews; and introducing a more flexible approach to time off for personal issues, which has resulted in employees taking personal leave rather than a sick day.

This year, we also asked respondents how accurate they felt their sickness absence data was. Less than one in 10 (9%) felt that the data they gathered was not accurate but encouragingly, more than half (51%) rated their sickness absence data as "very accurate". The remaining four in 10 (40%) believed their data is "roughly accurate".

Table 1: Absence rates by sector and organisation size 2018, % of working time lost per annum

    Broad economic sector Workforce size

Note: PSS = private-sector services, M&P = manufacturing and production.
n = 317 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

  All PSS M&P Public sector 1-99 100-249 250-499 500-999 1,000+
Lower quartile 1.6% 1.4% 1.6% 2.9% 1.3% 1.6% 1.9% 2.0% 2.6%
Median 2.5% 2.2% 2.4% 3.8% 1.9% 2.4% 3.1% 3.0% 3.1%
Upper quartile 3.5% 3.3% 3.3% 4.6% 2.6% 3.3% 4.0% 3.7% 4.2%
Average 2.7% 2.7% 2.5% 3.8% 2.1% 2.5% 3.0% 3.2% 3.3%

Table 2: Absence rates by sector and organisation size, 2018: number of days' absence per employee per annum

    Broad economic sector Workforce size

Note: PSS = private-sector services, M&P = manufacturing and production.
n = 246 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

  All PSS M&P Public sector 1-99 100-249 250-499 500-999 1,000+
Lower quartile 3.6 3.3 3.7 6.6 2.3 3.7 4.3 4.6 5.9
Median 5.6 5.0 5.5 8.6 3.5 5.5 7.1 6.8 7.2
Upper quartile 8.0 7.6 7.5 10.4 5.6 7.5 9.1 8.5 8.5
Average 6.3 6.1 5.8 8.7 5.4 5.8 6.9 7.2 7.2

Explanations of our calculations, averages, medians, upper and lower quartiles, and the industries covered by each economic sector can be found in Absence rates in the UK: technical notes.

Matched sample of employers: comparing 2018 absence rates with 2017

To give further context to our sickness absence data, each year we track absence rates and number of days' absence per employee for a matched sample of respondents. This year, among the 26 employers providing us with data for 2017 and 2018, there has been a slight increase in the median sickness absence rate - from 2.2% to 2.4%. Looking at the average, there has been a slight decrease in the percentage of time lost to sickness absence - from 2.4% to 2.2%.

By number of days lost to sickness absence per employee, in 2018 the median per employee is 5.4 and the average is 5.1. In 2017, the median stood at 5.1 and the average at 5.6 days.

Short-term and long-term sickness absence rates

Many employers now also break down their sickness absence rates into long-term and short-term sickness absence. Although definitions of what constitutes long-term sickness absence may vary by organisation, it is generally defined as a period of more than four weeks' continuous leave. Short-term absence is any period less than this.

Long-term sickness absence accounted for both a median and an average of 1.7% of working time among 53 organisations that provided data. When it comes to number of days' absence, among the 62 organisations providing data, the median stood at 3.4 days and the average at 5.5 days.

For the 59 organisations that provided data on short-term sickness absence, a median of 1.5% of working time was lost to sickness absence and an average of 2.7%. By days, a median of 3.2 and an average of 3.5 days per employee were attributed to short-term sickness absence for 74 organisations.

Thirteen years of absence rates data

Chart 1 shows how sickness rates have changed over the 13 years that we have been recording data in this area. Since 2010, the median has not been above 3% and has stood at 2.5% for two consecutive years now.

Chart 1: Absence rates for all employers, % of working time per annum, 2006-2018

Chart 1: Absence rates for all employers, percentage of working time per annum, 2006-2018

Source: XpertHR.

Translating this rate into days, and plotting changes over time, Chart 2 shows how the median number of days lost per employee has dropped by more than one full day in the past decade - in 2009, the median number of days per employee lost to sickness absence was 6.8, and in 2018 this stands at 5.6 days, as it also did in 2017.

Chart 2: Absence rates for all employers, number of days' absence per employee per annum, 2006-2018

Chart 2: Absence rates for all employers, number of days' absence per employee per annum, 2006-2018

Source: XpertHR.

Absence levels by sector and industry

We have produced two charts that record sickness absence rates (Chart 3) and days of sickness absence (Chart 4) by sector. Not all sectors are included, specifically where the sample size is not large enough to make for reliable findings.

Among private-sector-services organisations, transport and storage organisations have the highest absence rates, standing at a median of 3.7%. Public-sector organisations have seen absence rates drop in 2018 - from an average of 4.2% and a median of 4.3% to an average and median of 3.8%. As can be seen in chart 4, this translates as an average of 8.6 days per employee, down from an average of 9.7 days per employee in 2017.

Chart 3: Sickness absence levels by sector and industry 2018, % of working time lost per annum

Chart 3: Absence rates by sector and industry, 2018 - percentage of working time lost per annum

Source: XpertHR.

Chart 4: Sickness absence levels by sector and industry 2018, days of absence per employee per annum

Chart 4: Absence rates by sector and industry, 2018 - days' absence per employee per annum

Source: XpertHR.

Absence rates by region

Tables 3 and 4 break down absence rates and days by region. By median percentage of time lost to sickness absence, both the East Midlands and Wales have the highest rates at 3.0%. When looking at the average, the North-West region has the highest rate at 3.4%, followed by Scotland (3.2%) and Wales (3.2%).

Table 3: Sickness absence levels by region, 2018 - percentage of working time lost per annum

  Average (%) Median (%) n=
Source: XpertHR.
East Midlands 3.0 3.0 47
East of England 2.7 2.9 50
London 2.3 2.1 109
North-East England 2.7 2.9 33
North-West England 3.4 2.7 73
Scotland 3.2 2.6 54
South-East England 2.4 2.3 88
South-West England 2.8 2.6 62
Wales 3.2 3.0 39
West Midlands 2.8 2.6 57
Yorkshire and The Humber 2.7 2.9 47

Table 4: Sickness absence levels by region, 2018 - number of days' absence per employee per annum

  Average (no. of days) Median (no. of days) n=
Source: XpertHR.
East Midlands 6.9 6.7 47
East of England 6.6 6.8 50
London 5.3 4.7 109
North-East England 6.2 6.6 33
North-West England 7.7 6.2 73
Scotland 6.1 6.0 54
South-East England 5.6 5.2 88
South-West England 5.7 6.0 62
Wales 7.4 7.0 39
West Midlands 6.4 5.9 57
Yorkshire and The Humber 6.2 6.6 47

Sickness absence costs in 2018

There is no doubt that sickness absence is a significant cost to employers. In 2018, the median annual cost of sickness absence among employers providing figures stood at a median of £517 and an average of £573 per employee (see table 5). However, this is unlikely to be an accurate measurement of the overall cost of sickness absence. Exactly four in 10 respondents told us that they believed their total sickness absence costs data was not accurate - and just 14% believe it is very accurate.

When we look at what is included in the total cost of sickness absence, more than eight in 10 (81%) organisations include the salaries of individuals on sick leave. However, just nine organisations include the fees/wages of temporary staff providing cover for absence individuals; seven organisations include the overtime costs for other staff covering for those on sickness absence; two count the costs arising from reduced performance, service or missed business opportunities and the same number look at indirect costs such as reduced customer service.

Unfortunately, this chimes with our findings each year in this area. HR and employers continue to underestimate the total cost of sickness absence - this seems to contradict the growth in interest in people analytics and indeed, the growing use of HR information systems. It may be that such systems and ensuing data are still filtering through within organisations - we will continue to monitor the costs provided, what is included in those costs and how respondents rate their accuracy. Ignoring or underestimating the overall cost of sickness absence does not help HR to make the business case for effectively managing this area and makes it even more difficult to engage line managers in what can sometimes be a difficult or drawn-out process.

Table 5: Cost of absence per employee in 2018

  Average (£) Median (£) n =
Source: XpertHR.
  573 517 63
Broad economic sector
Private-sector services 606 548 40
Manufacturing and production 401 288 16
Public sector 769 767 7
Workforce size
1-249 employees 500 461 31
250-999 employees 559 435 14
1,000+ employees 709 681 18

Our research

This report is based on original research on employers' 2018 sickness absence rates and costs, carried out online in spring 2019. Responses were received from 346 organisations, employing 310,561 people. The breakdown by economic sector is as follows:

  • 217 (63%) are in private-sector services;
  • 93 (27%) are in manufacturing and production; and
  • 36 (10%) are in public-sector organisations.

Broken down by workforce size, the respondent organisations comprise:

  • 200 (58%) with one to 249 employees;
  • 86 (25%) employing 250 to 999; and
  • 60 (17%) with 1,000 or more.

What should I do now?

  • XpertHR's occupational sick pay survey looks at the benefits on offer, including any service requirements, and the circumstances in which sick pay may be withheld.
  • XpertHR's survey on wellbeing initiatives in use among employers identifies which initiatives have the most impact on wellbeing and, in turn, on sickness absence rates.
  • To address short-term sickness absence within your organisation, read our comprehensive policy to ensure you are covering all areas.