In 2021, the sickness absence rate was 2.2%, up from a record low of 1.8% in 2020. The average amount of absence was 4.6 days per person, with 24% of all absences due to COVID-19. There are regional variations, with London being the lowest at 1.7% and Wales and the North East being highest at 2.8% and 2.7% respectively. Rates were highest in the public sector at 3%, with the private sector at the lower rate of 1.9%.
The ONS has also published separately its estimates of the prevalence of long COVID. This indicates that approximately 1.8m people are experiencing long-COVID symptoms in the UK, with 1.2m saying that their day-to-day activities are affected by their symptoms. According to ONS research, long COVID is most prevalent in those between the age of 35 and 49, females, people living in deprived areas and those working in social care, teaching, education or health care.
The CIPD has also published its 2022 Health and Wellbeing at Work Report, which found 67% of organisations reporting COVID-19 among their top three causes of short-term absence. Nearly half of organisations (46%) have had employees experiencing long COVID symptoms, lasting 12 weeks or more. Long COVID is reported as one of the top causes of long term absence by 26% of organisations. A third of organisations (33%) have reported an increase to their wellbeing budget as a consequence of the pandemic.
A tweet from EHRC on 7 May 2022 recently caused some confusion by stating that “EHRC does not recommend that ‘long COVID’ be treated as a disability”. This was subsequently clarified by the EHRC, which published a statement saying that if a person’s symptoms have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, long COVID might amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This is likely to be confirmed in practice by future case law.
Our forthcoming series of Early Birds seminars will look at the topic of managing sickness absence, with particular focus on the ongoing challenges for employers presented by COVID-19. See our website for further details.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at May 2022.