Sickness absence rates in 2011 were 26% less than in 1993, according to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, which also revealed that 131 million days were lost due to sickness absences in the UK in 2011, down from 178 million days in 1993.

The figures, which include employees and self-employed, aged 16+, revealed the number of days lost through sickness absences remained constant through the 1990s until 2003 and has fallen since then.

It shows that, in 1993, around 7.2 days were lost (or around a week-and-a-half based on a five-day week), which by 2011 had fallen to less than a week (or 4.5 days).

The most common reason given for sickness in 2011 was minor illnesses such as coughs, colds and flu, with the greatest number of days lost due to musculoskeletal problems. This accounted for just over a quarter of all days lost or 34.4 million days. Around 27.5 million days were lost due to minor illnesses and 13.1 million days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety.

Women have consistently higher sickness absence rates than men but both sexes have seen a fall over the past 20 years. Men have gone from losing around 2.5% of their hours due to sickness in 1993 to around 1.5% in 2011. Over the same period women have seen a reduction from 3.3% to 2.3%.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, sickness absence rates are shown to increase with age. For workers aged between 16 and 34 around 1.5% of hours were lost to sickness in 2011 compared with around 2.5% of hours lost for workers aged 50 to 64.

Commenting on the report, Diane Buckley, Managing Director of Legal & General Group Protection, said:

“It is encouraging that the number of working days lost due to sickness is decreasing. A big part of that will be employers taking action early to ensure that the right support is there to help their employees back to work”.

However, TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, said the figures underlie a growing trend of presenteeism with workers coming into work even when they are ill.

He said:

“Presenteeism can multiply problems by making someone ill for longer and spreading germs around the workplace.

“Today’s figures also show that the biggest causes of long-term sickness absence are musculoskeletal disorders and stress. Both of these are often as a result of a person’s work.

“Employers need to look at their working practices and see whether they can be changed to prevent ill health, rather than try to blame workers for falling sick, which serves no good to anyone.”