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Sickness absence rates and costs survey 2017

Author: Noelle Murphy

XpertHR's sickness absence rates and costs survey shows movement after a long period of stability.

The national median absence rate stands at 2.9% of working time in 2016, which translates to 6.6 days a year per employee. This compares with a rate of 2.6% of working time and 5.8 days per employee in 2015.

Our report is based on data from 631 organisations covering 1,619,940 employees and has a good breadth of coverage by size and sector of organisation.

About this survey report

This summary report covers key findings from the 2017 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.

We analyse our findings in detail below - for example, by broad economic sector and workforce size and industry so that organisations can easily benchmark where their absence levels sit.

We also provide a matched sample of 36 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 2016

It is our 11th consecutive year of recording absence rates, which have risen slightly compared with last year's results. This follows a period of relative stability after a drop in rates coincided with the beginning of the recession in 2008. An aging workforce, a period of economic calm in early 2016, and a greater focus on people analytics - leading to more accurate data - may all be reasons for this increase. However, given the overall decrease in absence rates over the 11 years that we have been recording data, it may just be a one-off increase, with underlying stability continuing over the coming years.

Among the 588 survey respondents that provided data on absence rates for 2016, the national average stood at 3.2% of working time, equivalent to 7.4 days per employee.

Measured using the median, the rate of absence stood at 2.9% of working time, translating to 6.6 days per employee. The median is the exact midpoint in the range and, as such, reduces the impact of exceptionally high or low figures.

The interquartile range, which focuses on the middle 50% of findings and excludes the highest and lowest figures, shows absence rates at between 1.6% and 3.7% of working time lost. When expressed as number of days' absence, the interquartile range falls between 3.6 and 8.5 days' absence per employee.

These figures represent an increase when compared with 2014 and 2015, with the average absence rate for both years standing at 2.8%. Our time series graph shows that absence rates have been steadily reducing since 2006, with little fluctuation between 2013 and 2015. It is too early to say if this year's findings are the sign of an upward turn in sickness absence levels, or an isolated increase.

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.

Statistical breakdowns are shown only where the sample size is at least five.

Table 1: Absence rates 2016 by organisation sector and size - percentage of working time lost per annum

Lower
quartile, %
Median, % Upper
quartile, %
Average, %
All employers 1.8 2.9 4.0 3.2
Broad economic sector
Private-sector services 1.7 2.6 3.8 3.0
Manufacturing and production 1.8 2.6 3.6 3.1
Public sector 3.1 4.0 4.8 4.1
Workforce size (no. of employees)
1-99 1.1 1.8 2.5 2.3
100-249 1.8 2.7 3.7 2.9
250-499 1.8 2.6 3.9 3.1
500-999 2.4 3.0 4.0 4.1
1,000+ 3.0 3.8 4.6 3.9
n = 588 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

Table 2: Absence rates 2016 by organisation sector and size - number of days' absence per employee per annum

Lower
quartile
Median Upper
quartile
Average
All employers 4.2 6.6 9.1 7.4
Broad economic sector
Private-sector services 3.9 5.9 8.8 7.0
Manufacturing and production 4.1 6.0 8.1 6.9
Public sector 7.1 9.1 10.9 9.3
Workforce size (no. of employees)
1-99 2.5 4.0 5.7 5.2
100-249 4.0 6.3 8.5 6.7
250-499 4.1 6.0 9.0 7.1
500-999 5.4 7.0 9.7 9.4
1,000+ 6.7 8.8 10.6 9.0
n = 588 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

A matched sample of 36 employers: Comparing 2016 absence rates with 2015

As another means of monitoring trends in absence rates, we track absence rates and number of days' absence per employee among a matched sample of respondents, making a direct comparison between data from 2015 and 2016. All of the figures among our matched sample indicate an increase in sickness absence compared with last year.

Among these 36 employers, the median absence rate stood at 2.9% of working time in 2015, and at 3.4% for 2016. The average rates for both years stood at 2.9% and 3.1% respectively.

For 2016, this translates as a median of 7.8 days lost to absence per employee and 6.7 days in 2015. The average number of days lost to absence in 2016 stood at 7.2 and 6.6 in 2015.

Eleven years of absence rates data

In 2006, when XpertHR first recorded absence rates, the average percentage of working time lost to absence was 4% and the median 3.5% (see chart 1). Over time, we have seen this figure fall, and achieve some stability. This year, we have seen the average rate rise beyond 3% for the first time since 2009. The median, at 2.9%, is closer to the 2009 level of 3%.

Expressing this in days lost to absence, the average sickness absence increased by more than one day per employee, up to 7.4 days in 2016 from 6.3 in 2015. When we look at the median measure, employees took 6.6 days of sickness absence in 2016 compared with 5.8 days in 2015. This is the single largest increase since we started recording absence levels in 2006.

Chart 1: Absence rates for all employers, % of working time per annum, 2006-16

Chart 1: Absence rates for all employers, % of working time per annum, 2006-2016

Source: XpertHR.

Chart 2: Absence rates for all employers, number of days' absence per employee per annum, 2006-16

Chart 2: Absence rates for all employers, number of days' absence per employee per annum, 2006-2016

Source: XpertHR.

Absence rates by sector and industry

Absence rates vary by sector and industry. Chart 3 records our findings by broad sector and industry in terms of percentage of working time lost to absence. Chart 4 does so by the number of days' absence per employee.

Transport and storage organisations experienced the highest rate of sickness absence in 2016 among private-sector-services firms: an average of 8.7 days and a median of 6.6 days. Food, drink and tobacco organisations continue to experience the highest levels of sickness absence within all private-sector organisations, losing an average of 12.3 days per employee and a median of 7.1 days to sickness absence.

Absence rates within the public sector increased in 2016, and were close to absence levels we recorded in 2006. When we first recorded sickness absence data for the public sector, we recorded a rate of 4.4%, equivalent to 9.4 days per employee. We have seen absence rates fall steadily over time but consistent funding cuts and pay freezes within this sector may now be taking their toll on employees' health, wellbeing and engagement.

Chart 3: Absence rates 2016 by sector and industry - percentage of working time lost per annum

Chart 3: Absence rates by sector and industry 2016: percentage of working time lost per annum

Source: XpertHR.

Chart 4: Absence rates 2016 by sector and industry - days' absence per employee per annum

Chart 4: Absence rates by sector and industry 2016: days' absence per employee per annum

Source: XpertHR.

Sickness absence costs in 2016

The median cost of absence among our respondents providing figures remains the same as that recorded in 2015: £455 per employee. However, for the first time since we have started monitoring sickness absence costs, the median cost of absence is higher among private-sector organisations - at £765 per employee, compared with £746 for public-sector employers.

These figures are unlikely to reflect the true cost of sickness absence to organisations. Just 10 (8%) of those that provided figures measure costs arising from reduced performance or service, or missed business opportunities. Fewer than one in five (19%) measure the fees or wages of temporary staff providing cover for absent individuals. We have seen little or no change in the 11 years that we have been asking organisations how they measure the cost of sickness absence, with many organisations focusing only on the salaries of individuals on sick leave. The cost is as crude today as it was in 2006. Until organisations get the cost of sickness absence accurate, it is going to be difficult to persuade line managers and senior managers to engage with effectively managing employees' absence.

Table 3: Cost of absence per employee in 2016

Average, £ Median, £ n =
All employers 648 455 89
Broad economic sector
Private-sector services 595 765 60
Manufacturing and production 765 437 17
Public sector 770 746 12
Workforce size (no. of employees)
1-99 866 302 15
100-249 365 185 19
250-499 357 307 10
500-999 813 489 16
1,000+ 731 667 29
Source: XpertHR.

Our research

This report is based on original research on employers' 2016 sickness absence rates. Responses were received from 631 organisations, employing 1,619,940 people in total. The breakdown by economic sector is as follows:

  • 380 (60%) are in private-sector services;
  • 142 (23%) are in manufacturing and production; and
  • 109 (17%) are in the public sector.

Broken down by workforce size, the respondent organisations comprise:

  • 287 (45%) with between one and 249 employees;
  • 171 (27%) employing between 250 and 999; and
  • 173 (28%) with 1,000 or more.

What should I do now?

  • Managing short-term sickness absence can be a challenge, particularly carrying out return-to-work interviews. Use this model policy to set out your organisation's approach to short-term sickness absence.
  • Long-term sickness absence management requires a wide range of tools to ensure the organisation can assist employees on long-term sick leave with their rehabilitation and eventual return to work. This comprehensive model policy covers all the options.
  • It can be useful to set absence targets and triggers when managing absence. For practical guidance, consult How to > How to set absence triggers and targets.