131 million days were lost due to sickness absences in the UK in 2013, down from 178 million days in 1993, according to a new report looking at sickness trends over the past 20 years. Most of the fall in sickness absence was between 2003 and 2011. Looking at the number of days lost per worker, in 1993, around 7.2 days were lost and by 2013 this had fallen to 4.4 days.

The main cause for working days lost in 2013 was musculoskeletal conditions (such as back and neck pain), leading to 31 million days lost. The next most important cause was minor illnesses such as coughs and colds (27 million days lost), followed by stress, anxiety or depression, at 15 million days lost.

For those aged 16 and over, men consistently had a lower sickness absence rate than women. In 2013 men lost around 1.6% of their hours due to sickness, a fall of 1.1 percentage points from 1993 when 2.7% of men’s hours were lost to sickness. Over the same period women have seen a reduction of their hours lost from 3.8% to 2.6%. Women and men work in different types of jobs and when controlling for these differences and other factors that influence sickness, women were 42% more likely to have a spell of sickness than men.

In 2013, the percentage of hours lost to sickness in the private sector was lower than in the public sector at 1.8% and 2.9% respectively. Within some of the larger public sector organisations, sickness absence rates were highest for those working in a Health Authority or NHS Trust (3.4%). When controlling for the different factors that influence sickness, public sector workers were 24% more likely to be off work due to sickness than those in the private sector.

Between October 2012 to September 2013, workers in London had the lowest percentage of hours lost to sickness, at 1.5%. This may be down to the fact that the London workforce when compared with other parts of the Great Britain has a younger work force and more self-employed people. The South East, with the second lowest percentage of hours lost at 1.8%, also has a higher than average percentage of self-employed workers and more private sector workers. The highest percentage of working hours lost to sickness was in the East Midlands, Wales and North East, at 2.4%. When taking into account the different workforce and jobs in each region there was no statistically significant difference in the sickness absence across the country.

Ami Naru, an employment specialist at national law firm, Irwin Mitchell, said: “Whilst sickness absence in the workplace is inevitable and unavoidable most of the time, employers have toughened up in terms of policing sickness, with appropriate policies and procedures in place. The fall in sickness absence, although welcome news, will therefore probably not come as a surprise to those prudent employers who have such policies in place.

“It is also not a surprise that hours lost to sickness are higher in the public sector, where there are often more generous sick pay provisions.

“It is also interesting to note that women generally have higher sickness absence than men and this may be because women elect to take paid sick leave, rather than time off for dependents when they have a poorly child or childcare issues for example.

“In terms of approaches to tackle sickness, we have seen a variety of tactics used. For example, larger employers have in the past invested in in-house counselling support which allows workers to get support on key issues which will help them recover and reintegrate into working life.

“In addition, return to work interviews  used as part of an absence management procedure are always a useful tool as they allow an employer to ask important questions about the absence in a sympathetic manner – which often leads to an early intervention on key issues affecting their staff.

“Having the right tools in place can make a huge difference not only to absence rates, but to the overall welfare of staff.”

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “These figures prove that there is no such thing as a ‘sickie culture’, with the number days lost to ill-health falling as employers get better at managing sickness absence.

“The real health threat we face is the growing culture of presenteeism – where unwell staff are pressurised into coming work by their bosses. This can prolong illness, spread germs and cause unnecessary stress throughout the workplace.

“Many of the main reasons why people take time off, for example to cope with back pain and stress, are actually caused by work. If we want to see sickness levels brought down even further, we should be concentrating more on how to prevent these problems.”