New figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed that the absence rate due to sickness amongst the UK workforce has fallen to the lowest level on record.

Despite the enormous impact of COVID-19 on all areas of working life, one area which has improved is the absence rate amongst staff.

New figures released by the ONS show that the absence rate dropped from 1.9 per cent in 2019 to 1.8 in 2020 – the lowest level since 1995.

The report suggests that whilst COVID-19 may have contributed to additional sickness absence, the measures put in place to tackle the pandemic including furlough, remote working, social distancing and shielding could have ultimately helped to reduce other causes of absence.

In addition, the shift to working from home could have also meant that people who would normally have felt too ill to travel into the workplace felt well enough to complete their shift from home, leading to a lower absence rate.

Despite this, since April 2020, COVID-19 accounted for 14 per cent of all occurrences of sickness absence.

Minor illnesses were still the leading cause of absence, making up over a quarter of the total claims (26.1 per cent). Other common reasons for sickness absence included musculoskeletal problems (15.4 per cent) and mental health conditions (11.6 per cent). 17 per cent of claims fell under the category of ‘Other’.

In addition, women were more likely to lose their working hours as a result of sickness and injury than men. In 2020, women lost 2.3 per cent of their working hours due to this in comparison with 1.5 per cent for men.

Conversely, women’s rate of sickness absence has been falling at a faster rate than men over the last decade.

The only group to see a rise in sickness absence rates over the last decade were employees aged over 65, increasing by 0.4 percentage points to 2.8 per cent in 2020.

However, the research did note that this group was more likely to develop health problems, leaving them more susceptible to illness. In addition, this group was at a much higher risk for COVID-19, explaining the upwards trend over the past year.

Addressing the creation of healthy workplaces and promoting wellbeing amongst staff, the CIPD stated this in a report last year:

To bring about long-term change and build healthy workplaces, organisations need to look beyond top-line statistics like sickness absence and fully assess current and future health risks – including those which may be rooted in less tangible cultural expectations and working practices. This means taking a systematic approach. There are various methods and tools available to employers, but a key approach that is seriously underused is carrying out a stress risk assessment or similar audit. Conducting employee focus groups with managers and employees can help to complete the picture and build a strategic, holistic strategy to target action where it’s most needed.

An effective well-being programme needs to be specific and based on employee need, but there are some elements that are prerequisites for success in any organisation. This includes a senior team that makes a serious and visible commitment to health and well-being. It also means placing good people management at the heart of well-being, ensuring that managers build healthy relationships with their teams and have the courage and competence to support people’s well-being. We know from our research that much greater attention is needed in these areas to effect the cultural change needed to build truly healthy workplaces.

This research was taken from recent ONS statistics entitled ‘Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2020’ which was published in March 2021.





Monica Sharma is an English Literature graduate from the University of Warwick. As Editor for HRreview, her particular interests in HR include issues concerning diversity, employment law and wellbeing in the workplace. Alongside this, she has written for student publications in both England and Canada. Monica has also presented her academic work concerning the relationship between legal systems, sexual harassment and racism at a university conference at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.