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Sickness absence rates and costs survey 2018

Author: Noelle Murphy

XpertHR's latest sickness absence rates and costs survey shows a reduction in absence rates nationally, but an increase in the cost to employers.

About this survey report

This summary report covers key findings from the 2018 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 the questions from this survey.

The median absence rate stood at 2.5% of working time throughout the UK in 2017 - which translates as 5.6 days per employee, across the UK. This compares with a rate of 2.9% of working time and 6.6 days per employee in 2016. The median is the exact midpoint in the range of absence figures and, as such, reduces the impact of exceptionally high or low figures.

Our findings are based on data from 287 organisations covering 398,453 employees and have broad coverage by sector and organisation size.

We analyse our findings in more detail below, by:

We also provide a matched sample of 25 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 2017

In our 12th year of recording sickness absence rates, we can see a decline compared with 2016 rates. Our commentary on the 2016 data suggested that the increase recorded for that year might have been a one-off hike as it followed several years of relative stability. The data for 2017 suggests that this was indeed the case, although it will be interesting to track changes over the next few years.

With a growing emphasis on people analytics, including measuring and recording sickness absence data, a temporary increase in sickness absence rates may be expected. When more attention is paid to the accuracy of the raw data, absence rates can often experience a slight initial hike.

Among the 246 organisations providing usable data, the national average rate of sickness absence stood at 2.8% - see table 1. This translates to 6.1 days per employee per annum - see table 2.

The median rate of sickness absence stood at 2.5% of working time in 2017, equating to 5.6 days per employee.

The interquartile range - focusing on the middle 50% of findings and excluding the highest and lowest figures - shows absence rates at between 1.6% and 3.5% of working time lost. Expressing this as number of days' absence, the range falls between 3.6 and 7.8 days' absence per employee, per year.

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 2017 absence rates with 2016

Each year, we track absence rates and the number of days' absence per employee among a matched sample of respondents. This year, among the 25 employers that provided us with data for 2016 and 2017, there has been a drop in sickness absence rates, mirroring the movement among our overall sample.

Among these 25 employers, the median absence rate stood at 3.5% of working time in 2016, and at 3% for 2017 - the average for both years are recorded as 3.8% and 3.1% respectively.

By the number of days lost to sickness absence per employee, in 2016 the figure was a median of 7.9 days and an average of 8.7. For 2017, the median stands at 6.8 days and the average for this group at 7.2 days, showing a drop of more than one full day per employee, per year, among this group.

Short-term and long-term sickness absence rates

Respondents, where possible, also provided data on short-term and long-term sickness absence. Although employers may use different definitions, the general definition of long-term sickness absence is a period of more than four weeks' continuous leave, and short-term sickness absence as any period less than this.

Among the 77 respondents providing data on long-term sickness absence rates, the median stood at 1.23% of working time and the average at 1.8%. In terms of days lost to long-term sickness absence, data from 110 respondents shows a median of three days lost, per employee, per year, and an average of 6.5.

A median of 1.7% and an average of 2% of working time was lost to short-term sickness absence among 83 respondents. By number of days lost, among 121 respondents, the median was 3.3 and the average 3.7.

Twelve years of absence rates data

In the 12 years that we have been recording sickness absence rates, we have seen the median and average fall from a starting point of 3.5% and 4%, respectively - the median has not risen above 3% since 2009 (see chart 1).

Expressing this in number of days lost to absence, in 2017 sickness absence decreased by more than one day, per employee, compared with 2016 (see chart 2). The average number of sick days taken by individual employees in 2016 was 7.4, and the median was 6.6. In 2017, this dropped to an average of 6.1 and a median of 5.6 days. Overall, however, figures for 2017 chime with the downward trend in sickness absence rates since 2009.

Chart 1: Absence rates for all employers, percentage of working time per annum, 2006-2017

Chart 1: Absence rates for all employers, percentage of working time per annum, 2006-2017

Source: XpertHR.

Chart 2: Absence rates for all employers, number of days' absence per employee per annum, 2006-2017

Chart 2: Absence rates for all employers, number of days' absence per employee per annum, 2006-2017

Source: XpertHR.

Absence rates by sector and industry

Absence rates vary by sector and industry. We have produced two charts recording sickness absence rates (see chart 3) and the number of days' sickness absence (see chart 4) by sector. We have not included all sectors, specifically where the sample size is not large enough to make the findings significant or robust.

Chart 3: Absence rates by sector and industry, 2017 - percentage of working time lost per annum

Chart 3: Absence rates by sector and industry, 2017 - percentage of working time lost per annum

Source: XpertHR.

Chart 4: Absence rates by sector and industry, 2017 - days' absence per employee per annum

Chart 4: Absence rates by sector and industry, 2017 - days' absence per employee per annum

Source: XpertHR.

Absence rates by region

We have also broken down absence rates and sickness absence days per employee by region (see table 3 and table 4). Wales has the highest sickness absence rate, at a median of 3% and an average of 3.5% - translating to a median of 6.9 days per employee, and an average of 7.9 days. London enjoys the lowest absence rates - a median of 2% and an average of 2.6%. By days lost to sickness absence, this equates to a median of 4.7 and an average of 5.2 days.

Sickness absence costs in 2017

The median cost of sickness absence among our respondents providing figures has shown a slight increase from 2016 - the median cost per employee is £570 and the average is £656 (see table 5). This compares with a median cost of £455 per employee in 2016 and an average of £648.

These figures are unlikely to be representative of the true cost of sickness absence, however. The crude measure of the cost of salaries of individuals on sick leave is, by some margin, the most frequently used measure - 88% of respondents include this cost. Fewer than one in 10 (8.4%) include indirect costs, such as reduced customer service or missed business opportunities. This picture remains unchanged from when we first started recording sickness absence data in 2006.

Given the move in the HR profession towards people analytics, more accurate recording and reporting should be easier to produce. Identifying cost points for sickness absence needs to go beyond just that of counting the cost of the salary of the individual on sickness absence. Underestimating the cost of sickness absence reduces the business case for effectively managing sickness absence, and makes it more difficult to persuade managers to engage with the process.

Our research

This report is based on original research into employers' 2017 sickness absence, carried out online throughout March and April 2018. Responses were received from 287 organisations, employing 398,453 people. The breakdown by economic sector is as follows:

  • 188 (65%) are in private-sector services;
  • 65 (23%) are in manufacturing and production; and
  • 34 (12%) are in the public sector.

Broken down by workforce size, the respondent organisations comprise:

  • 151 (53%) with one to 249 employees;
  • 78 (27%) employing 250 to 999; and
  • 58 (20%) with 1,000 or more.

The smallest organisation employs seven and the largest employs 45,000 people. The average number employed is 1,388.

What should I do now?

Table 1: Absence rates by sector and organisation size, 2017 - percentage of working time lost 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 1.6% 1.4% 1.6% 3.1% 1.1% 1.3% 1.8% 2.3% 2.6%
Median 2.5% 2.2% 2.4% 4.3% 1.9% 2.1% 2.8% 2.8% 3.4%
Upper quartile 3.5% 3.2% 3.4% 4.7% 2.6% 2.8% 3.6% 3.9% 4.3%
Average 2.8% 2.7% 2.5% 4.2% 2.1% 2.3% 3.0% 3.1% 4.2%

Table 2: Absence rates by sector and organisation size, 2017 - 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 3.2 3.7 7.1 2.6 2.8 4.2 5.0 6.0
Median 5.6 5.0 5.4 9.8 4.3 4.8 6.3 6.1 7.6
Upper quartile 7.8 6.8 7.5 11.0 6.0 6.4 8.2 8.9 9.9
Average 6.1 5.6 5.7 9.7 4.8 5.2 6.7 6.8 8.1

Table 3: Absence rates by region, 2017 - percentage of working time lost per annum

  Average (%) Median (%) n=
Source: XpertHR.
East Midlands 3.1 2.7 34
East of England 3.9 2.7 27
London 2.6 2.1 93
Northern Ireland 4.3 2.7 22
North-East England 3.5 2.5 32
North-West England 3.4 2.8 52
Scotland 3.9 2.5 37
South-East England 2.9 2.3 66
South-West England 3.4 2.8 48
Wales 3.5 3.0 26
West Midlands 2.7 2.6 44
Yorkshire and The Humber 2.8 2.6 39

Table 4: Absence rates by region, 2017 - number of days' absence per employee per annum

  Average (no. of days) Median (no. of days) n=
Source: XpertHR.
East Midlands 7.1 6.1 34
East of England 6.1 6.0 27
London 5.2 4.7 93
Northern Ireland 6.4 6.0 22
North-East England 5.7 5.6 32
North-West England 6.3 6.2 52
Scotland 6.8 5.6 37
South-East England 5.4 5.1 66
South-West England 6.2 6.2 48
Wales 7.9 6.9 26
West Midlands 6.2 5.9 44
Yorkshire and The Humber 6.4 5.9 39

Table 5: Cost of absence per employee in 2017

  Average (£) Median (£) n =
Source: XpertHR.
  656 570 96
Broad economic sector
Private-sector services 585 510 65
Manufacturing and production 837 737 18
Public sector 763 782 13
Workforce size
1-99 employees 598 484 27
100-249 employees 434 356 22
250-499 employees 570 570 15
500-999 employees 1,041 879 12
1,000+ employees 813 792 20