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More working days were lost to sickness or injury in 2022 than during any other year on record.
The 185.6 million figure represents a 35.8 million hike on 2021 and is 47.4 million more than in 2019, hinting at a seismic shift caused by the pandemic.
Since then, long-term sickness has become the most common cause of dropping out of the workforce. The number of UK residents classed as economically inactive – aged between 16 and 64 neither in work nor seeking a job – had been falling for almost a decade, but the group has swelled by 500,000 in three years.
The rising level of ill health is a major concern for policymakers in its impact on the economy, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt making getting people back into work one of the key tenets of his Spring Budget.
The scale of the issue and the burden it imposes is not, however, spread equally across the UK.
At 23.4 million, more working days were lost to sickness in London than any other region in the country.
For the capital, the place with the largest concentration of workers in the UK, this corresponds to a sickness absence rate of 2.3 percent. Because 2022 had 250 working days, this comes to just under six days off due to illness.
The South East came second with 23.3 million, followed by the North West (19.2 million) and Scotland (17.6 million).
Wales had the highest sickness absence rate of all at 3.8 percent – almost ten days off sick.
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Minor illnesses were the most common reason given for sickness absence in 2022, making up 29.3 percent of the total, followed by “other” (23.8 percent), and musculoskeletal problems (10.5 percent). Respiratory conditions (8.3 percent) took over from mental health conditions (7.9 percent) as the fourth most-cited explanation.
The latest ONS data show 8.73 million people in the UK are classed as economically active, 2.55 million of which are because of long-term sickness. Chris Thomas, head of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on Health and Prosperity, said: “More people are now out of work due to ill health than any other time since records began. This is a damning indictment of this Government’s record on our health.
“Long-term sickness is fatally undermining our economy and holding back people’s ability to live long, happy and prosperous lives. The Government need to stop viewing investment in good health as a cost to control and instead see it as the best medicine for our economic malaise.
“It’s time to make better health a core, central and cross-department mission of government: so we can tackle the NHS crisis, take bolder action on public health issues like obesity, and act on the root causes of poor health: including insecure work, poor quality housing and poverty.”
Separate data released by the ONS showed that productivity growth – the driving force behind rising living standards – came to zero between October and December last year.
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