Why are workers taking less sick leave?

According to the latest figures from The Office of National Statistics (ONS), it turns out the economy’s woes are actually creating a healthy workforce. The ONS’s findings claim the UK workforce is taking just 4.5 sick days during recession compared with 7.2 days when records began in 1993, just a year after the last recession.

Observers point out there has been a steady decline, with workers taking an average of 6.7 days off for sick leave in 2007 and five days off in 2010. And as the country sinks into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s, there is speculation that the growing climate of fear in the workplace means fewer people are taking time off. But why?

Fear of redundancy

Emma Kelleher, managing director, at Caterek Recruitment, which specialises in placements in the hospitality industry, says: “We have noticed a decline in sick days. Candidates used to use this and dentist or doctor’s appointments to attend job interviews, but they now feel this may lead to them being singled out for redundancy, or that employers are looking for any opportunity to dismiss people,” says Kelleher.

They are right to worry. A survey in 2011 by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found 52% of companies used employee absence records as part of their criteria when selecting people for redundancy.

It seems inevitable, then, that the fall in sick leave would tally with a growth in unemployment. When recession bit in 2008 the unemployment rate stood at about 1.6 million. Towards the end of 2009, it was almost a million higher at 2.5 million. Recovery has faltered, and since then companies have continued to reduce staff. By the end of last year, unemployment had peaked at almost 2.7 million, its highest level for 17 years.

Illness in the workplace

It’s no wonder some workers still struggle into work when they’re ill – a trend known as presenteeism.  In 2011, a CIPD survey found 28% of employers noticed an increase in the number of people coming to work ill, and nearly two-fifths reported an increase in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression among employees.

According to the findings published in Occupational Medicine earlier this year, mounting workloads and anxiety from job uncertainty has pushed up work-related stress by 25% since 2005. It concluded that one in four workers is likely to experience job-related stress during an economic slump. Equally, there is more time being taken off for back pain and other work-related muscular ailments – an ONS report cites 34.4 million days in 2011.

Work Foundation spokeswoman Ksenia Zheltoukhova stated: “If you look at the reasons why workers are taking time off sick, stress has fallen down the list – people don’t want to say they are stressed because it makes them look weak. In the current economic situation, workers really don’t want to appear weak in case they lose their job, so they will come to work even when they shouldn’t.”

What does this mean for recruiters?

It’s clear that during a downturn workers want to cling on to their jobs and don’t want to risk ending up on their employer’s downsizing list by taking sick days. But, how does all this impact on the recruitment market?

In short, the high unemployment figures mean people in a job are less likely to move. Kelleher, at Caterek, says people aren’t looking to change their employer at the moment because they feel there is less security in new roles. In addition, they don’t want to risk losing benefits such as redundancy pay and other time-served benefits, and they are seeing an opportunity for career progression by staying in a role long-term.

“This is a trend that hasn’t been seen for more than 10 years,” says Kelleher. “Previously, career development has been about staying two to three years in each role and moving on for higher salary and better job title. Now we are seeing a return to working your way up in a company, with security being a very important factor even though salaries and job titles are not as great.”

Nevertheless, the high unemployment levels continue to keep the jobseeker market vigorous. According to the Totaljobs.com barometer, there are still significantly more job applications than jobs posted. In April 2011, the jobsite posted 22,479 London based jobs and generated 479,337 applications. It’s a similar pattern a mere year later, when 23,762 jobs were posted, attracting 572,782 applications.


  1. Daniela September 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks for sharing such a great post with us, transparency and authenticity is main points for the getting success fast in career.

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