Number of staff 'throwing sickies' from work falls to a 23-year low

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British workers collectively took 180 million days off work last year, costing the economy almost £17bn – but the figure was the lowest for 23 years.

Research published today by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Pfizer shows the average employee took 6.4 days off sick in 2009, down from 6.7 days in 2007, the last time the survey was conducted. The average was the lowest since 1987, when the research was first undertaken.

The CBI said reductions in sickness leave in the public sector accounted for the fall, though the absence rate in the private sector remained significantly lower. Overall, the cost of staff absence to the economy was £16.8bn.

The business group also said that surveys of senior human resources staff suggested that about 15 per cent of the days workers took off last year were not genuine, suggesting that Britons took 27 million "sickies" between them, costing £2.5bn in 2009.

Larger organisations tend to have higher levels of absenteeism than smaller ones, and there is evidence that employers which have introduced policies to encourage staff off sick for the long-term to return to work are beginning to reap the benefits.

The higher level of absenteeism in the public sector – where workers averaged 8.3 days off sick last year compared with 5.8 days in the private sector – will add to the campaign that organisations such as the CBI have been fighting for austerity measures in sectors where staff are directly employed by the taxpayer.