Stress was one of the biggest contributors to a rise in workplace absences over the past year, according to research that found the number of workers taking sick leave has hit a 10-year high.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) analysed sickness absence and employee health among 918 organisations representing 6.5 million employees, with 76% of respondents reporting they had taken time off due to stress in the past year.
Recurring cases of Covid-19 and long Covid were another trigger for workers to take time off while the cost-of-living crisis was cited by many as a reason behind sick leave.
The report comes as firms warn of continuing difficulties with recruitment and a lack of skilled staff, prompting its authors to say it was clear employers needed to offer more support to get people back to work.
They found that staff were absent from work for an average of 7.8 days over the past year, up from 5.8 days in 2019, before the pandemic and the highest since 2010.
Rachel Suff, senior employee wellbeing adviser at the CIPD, said: “External factors like the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have had profound impacts on many people’s wellbeing.”
Of the organisations responding, 50% said they have employees over the past 12 months who have experienced, or are experiencing long Covid – ie with symptoms that last 12 weeks or more – up from 46% the previous year. More than a third (37%) of organisations reported Covid-19 as still being a significant cause of short-term absence.
“These figures may underestimate the issue as not all employees with the condition report their symptoms and a fifth of respondents didn’t know whether any employees had long Covid-19 symptoms,” said the report, based on a survey conducted with the insurer Simplyhealth.
The main cause of long-term absences was mental ill health, which 63% of respondents cited as the top cause, while short-term absences continued to be dominated by minor illnesses like colds and musculoskeletal injuries, though mental ill health was also cited by 43% of respondents as a reason for workers to take a few days off work.
The rise in sickness absences comes amid a growing demand from employees to work more flexibly and to work from home in response to caring responsibilities, rising costs and stress at work.
A recent report by KPMG said two-fifths of UK workers are considering a career change due to the rising cost of living, up from 35% in 2022. The accountancy firm surveyed 1,500 UK employees about their working habits and career aspirations and found a challenging economic environment is changing their employment priorities.
A report on Monday by economists at the same firm said the UK’s low productivity, which measures the amount produced by a worker each hour, will weigh on the economy and with continued political uncertainty and high interest and slow growth in the second half of this year.
They fear the UK could “struggle to keep its head above water in the second half of the year” as “renewed signs of stress” hit the economy.
KPMG predicted UK growth will slow to just 0.4% this year, down from 4.1% in 2022, and slow further to just 0.3% in 2024, less than half the 0.8% forecast by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD).
Labour said the UK was the only OECD country to have gone backwards on all three rates of employment, unemployment and economic inactivity since the start of the pandemic.
Analysis of recently published data from the OECD shows that across the Paris-based organisation’s 38 member countries, the UK is the only one to have a lower employment rate, a higher rate of unemployment and a higher rate of economic inactivity than in early 2020.
“Five other countries also have a lower employment rate, while 14 others have seen unemployment rise and five others have seen economic inactivity increase. But, under the Tories, the UK is uniquely failing on all three fronts,” Labour said.
Labour’s new shadow work and pensions secretary, Liz Kendall, said the UK was suffering a “crisis of economic inactivity” that has especially affected the over-50s and young people.