Londoners least likely to call in ill but divide remains between public and private sectors

People are calling in sick less often, with the average Briton taking less than a week off per year, the Office for National Statistics revealed yesterday.

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Around 131 million working days were lost in 2011, compared with 178 million in 1993 when records began. This means the average worker now takes just less than five days off each year – down from a peak of 7.2 days, 19 years ago.

Young, self-employed men living in London are likely to take the least time off sick, with women working in the public sector reporting ill the most.

The most common reasons given continue to be minor coughs and colds, but musculoskeletal issues – particularly back pain, neck and upper limb problems – account for the largest amount of missed time, around a quarter of the total. Stress, depression and anxiety were the fourth biggest cause, accounting for 13.1 million days off.

Yet while employers welcomed the downward trend since 2003, there are several disparities. Women are more likely to be off than men, while the public sector reported more lost days per worker than the private sector.

In Wales and the North-east, the average sickness rate was 2.5 per cent of total working hours compared with 1.3 per cent in London. The report suggests this is because London has a higher proportion of younger workers, who take less time off than their older colleagues. London is also home to more private sector jobs and self-employed.

On average, private sector workers took 1.6 per cent of their hours off sick last year, compared with those in state-funded employment who reported ill for 2.6 per cent of their contracted time.

The self-employed missed an average of 1.2 per cent, while women in the public sector were ill for 3 per cent of the time – twice the male rate. One reason for the difference is that private sector workers are less likely to get sick pay. They may also have to make up hours in overtime while many private firms are small, with staff under more pressure to soldier on.

Guy Bailey, the Confederation of British Industry's head of employee relations policy, said the figures showed employers' efforts to reduce absence rates were bearing fruit. But he added: "More needs to be done to close the gap between public and private sector levels of absence, including making the most of the new e-fit note roll-out to support people returning to work."