Sick on the job: UK employees three times as likely to go to work unwell than ‘pull a sickie’

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Seven in ten (69%) UK private sector employees – equivalent to 18 million nationally[1] – have gone to work unwell when they should have taken the day off, Aviva’s Working Lives report shows.

  • Seven in ten (69%) employees have gone to work unwell
  • At the same time, a quarter (23%) of employees admit to taking a day off when not actually ill
  • Results come first, as 43% of employees feel their boss puts business performance ahead of their health and wellbeing
  • Three quarters of employers (77%) say health and wellbeing benefits have a positive impact on their workforce

Seven in ten (69%) UK private sector employees – equivalent to 18 million nationally[1] – have gone to work unwell when they should have taken the day off, Aviva’s Working Lives report shows.

In contrast, less than a quarter (23%) say they have taken a day off work sick when they were not actually unwell, indicating that UK employees are three times more likely to go to work unwell than they are to ‘pull a sickie’.

The fourth edition of the Working Lives report – which examines the attitudes and experiences of employers and employees on issues affecting the present and future of the UK workplace – also carries a wake-up call to businesses, as more than two in five (43%) employees feel their employer puts the results of the company ahead of their health and wellbeing.

However, the findings also illustrate that through investing in the health and wellbeing of their employees, employers can generate tangible returns, with over three in four (77%) businesses who offer benefits highlighting a positive impact on the workforce.

Widespread ‘presenteeism’ as average sick days fall

In what may be a surprise to employers, Aviva’s findings suggest private sector workers are fearful of heavy workloads if they take time off, as more than two in five (41%) say their work will pile up if they are off sick. With people continuing to work while they are unwell, it is likely that they are less productive as a consequence and in turn could also affect the health of other employees. 

The worrying trend comes against the backdrop of a historic fall in the average number of sick days taken annually by UK employees, dropping to a record low of 4.3 days in 2016 compared with 7.2 days in 1993 when tracking began.[2]

Minority of employers give increased attention to health and wellbeing

The report findings highlight that only 13% of employers feel there has been more of a focus on employee health and wellbeing over the past year, while just over one in ten (12%) feel there has been an improvement in the working environment over the past year, with employees seeming healthier and happier.

Such views chime with employees’ own assessment of their situation: more than two in five (42%) admit they often feel stressed or anxious at work, rising to 46% among younger workers (18-34 year olds). Employers could also be underestimating the impact stress has on their employees, as only 23% cite this as an issue. Instead, employers view coping with workload (32%) and dealing with change (24%) as greater challenges faced by their employees.

Investing in health and wellbeing pays off

However, Aviva’s findings also suggest that those businesses who do invest in their employees’ health and wellbeing are reaping the rewards. Of those that offer health and wellbeing benefits, more than three in four (77%) believe this has had a positive impact on the workforce. Employers also report increased happiness levels (41%) among employees with improved morale (32%) and productivity (30%) as a result of having initiatives in place to keep employees healthy.

Furthermore, in a sign of potential changes afoot, two in three (65%) businesses think the workforce will work more flexibly in five years’ time. Notably, of the 64% of businesses who currently offer flexible working, almost seven in ten (68%) said their employees were happier as a consequence.

Dr Doug Wright, Medical Director, Aviva UK Health, said:

“While every business wants the right level of resource in place, having employees who are unwell at work is a false economy. Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.

“Presenteeism, driven in part by an increased ‘always-on’ culture, poses a genuine threat to overall business performance through the adverse impact on productivity and morale in the workplace. Businesses should ensure they take the lead on communicating proactively to employees that it’s important to take a step back when unwell and it can be in everyone’s interest.

“Businesses can also counter such issues by ensuring they continue to explore new ways in which to improve the working experience for employees. Investment in health and wellbeing is no longer a nice to have; it must be looked on as a priority.”

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