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UK sees record sickness and zero productivity growth in 2022

Britain saw a record number of working days lost due to short-term sickness last year and zero annual growth in economic output per hour worked in the final quarter of 2022, according to official data released on Wednesday.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics highlight the challenges facing Britain as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well its long-term struggle with productivity which has weighed on living standards for years.

British workers took 185.6 million days off work due to sickness or injury in 2022. This was more than during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic itself, when fewer sick days were recorded as millions of workers were on furlough and lockdown restrictions reduced exposure to minor illnesses.

The record partly reflects the growth in Britain’s workforce over recent years, but even measured as a percentage of hours worked, the sickness rate was the highest since 2004, with 2.6% of hours lost due to sickness or injury, up from 1.9% in 2019.

The rise in the percentage of days lost to sickness reverses a long-term downward trend in ONS data going back to 1995.

Minor illnesses accounted for 29% of days lost, while respiratory conditions accounted for 8% of days lost – up from 4% in 2019 – and ‘other’ conditions, which include COVID-19, diabetes and a range of others – rose to 24% from 14%.

Sickness absence was most common among workers in the care sector and related personal services roles.

Previous ONS data has shown a big rise too in long-term sickness among working-age people outside the job market. A record 28.7% of people classed as ‘economically inactive’ in the three months to February 2023 said they were long-term sick, the most since these records began in 1993.

Separate ONS figures on Wednesday showed continued weakness in productivity at work, seen by most economists as the biggest long-term challenge to living standards in Britain.

Output per hour worked was unchanged between the final quarters of 2021 and 2022. Since 2019 it has risen by 2.1%, reflecting a 1.6% fall in the average number of hours each person works and a 0.5% rise in output.

Earlier this year, the Bank of England forecast a weak outlook for productivity in Britain, with growth in output per hour worked averaging 0.25% a year over the next three years, down from 0.75% between 2010 and 2019 and 2% in the decade before the 2008 financial crisis.

Weak business investment, greater trade barriers due to Brexit and deficiencies in employee and management skills are among the reasons economists give for the poor performance.
Source: Reuters

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