Civil service sick days climb to 12-year high

Ministry of Justice still tops the table, despite year-on-year reduction
Photo: William Brawley/Flickr CC BY 2.0

By Jim Dunton

04 Mar 2024

Civil servants took more sick days in 2022-23 than in any other year in the past decade, according to statistics released by the Cabinet Office.

The figures reveal that the average number of working days lost per full time-equivalent staff member over the 12-month period was 8.1, up from 7.9 the previous year and 6.1 in 2020-21. The first year of the coalition government was the most recent period when average sickness rates were higher.

The Ministry of Justice had the highest number of average working days lost per staff year, at 11.1. The figure is lower than in 2021-22, when the departmental average was 12.1.

At the other end of the scale, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had the lowest proportion of average working days lost per staff member: 3.1.

Welsh education and training inspectorate Estyn notched up the biggest rise in sickness rates, with average days lost increasing from 5.4 to 9.7 – an 80% hike. The Department of Health and Social Care saw its average days-lost figure rise from 4.7 to 6.0 – a 28% increase. The Ministry of Defence was not far behind, with average days lost per staff year at the main department and four agencies and arm's-length bodies increasing from 5.2 to 6.5: a 25% growth.

Regionally, Northern Ireland had the highest number of average days lost due to sickness – 9.5 per staff year, a 0.1 decrease on 2021-22. Scotland had the second-highest proportion of sick days – an average of 9.4, a 0.1 increase on the previous year.

Civil servants based in London had the lowest level of sickness absence: an average of 6.2 days per staff year, up from 5.9 in 2021-22.

More than half of days lost are long-term sickness

The Cabinet Office is able to break down its figures to show long-term and short-term sickness. The data for 2022-23 shows that across the civil service, an average of 4.4 working days per staff year were lost to long-term sickness, compared with 3.7 working days for short-term sickness. The numbers represent a 0.1-day increase for each category from last year.

Mental ill health was the biggest single cause of long-term sickness absence, accounting for 45% of days lost,  followed by musculoskeletal system disorders (13%). Covid-19 accounted for 2.6% of long-term sick days.

Respiratory-system illnesses such as colds and flu were the biggest cause of short-term sickness absence, responsible for 22% of days lost. Covid accounted for 21%, while digestive problems such as food poisoning were the cause of 9.7%.

On average, female officials took more sick days than men: 8.9 days compared with 7.2. Both figures were a small increase on the previous year.

Forty-nine percent of civil servants did not take any sick days in 2022-23, down from 53% the previous year.

A government spokesperson said the Civil Service People Plan 2024-27 had committed to assessing departments’ health and wellbeing standards, as well as delivering a project to support civil servants in maintaining good mental health, wellbeing and attendance.

"We have comprehensive health and wellbeing support and signposting in place to help employees back into work once they have fully recovered," the spokesperson said.

"Sickness rates are broadly in line with those seen in the private sector, and the latest available data from the Office for National Statistics shows that – in 2022 – central government had lower rates of sickness than the private sector."

The spokesperson said the ONS data contrasted "central government" sickness-absence rates of 2.1% with 2.3% in the private sector. 

ONS figures for the whole UK economy say 5.7 days were lost to sickness per worker in 2022 across all sectors.

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