Keeping chins up, or burning out? UK workforce takes among the least sick leave in Europe

New research has revealed the countries across Europe with a serial sickie problem, and the UK isn’t among them. But, is a pandemic of presenteeism risking the longer term health and productivity of UK workers in genuine need of time off?

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Research conducted by attendance software company Mitrefinch has revealed that out of 44 European countries, the United Kingdom had the seventh lowest number of sick days last year.

The figures revealed that workers across Britain only took an average of 5.8 days of sick leave across the calendar year, despite the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic and the return of cold and flu season in the winter months.

The least likely countries to take a ‘cheeky’ sick day were Switzerland and Sweden, with their workers taking just 2.4 days of sick leave respectively.

What do the results say about British workers, and working in the UK?

What could UK employers learn from their Swedish and Swiss counterparts? Well, their low incidence of sick days may have less to do with hand-washing and social distancing. For one thing, both Switzerland and Sweden are unusually generous when it comes to annual leave entitlement.

Sweden gives its citizens 41 days of paid leave – more holiday time than any other country in the world. With more paid leave to enjoy, there’s an argument that the Swedish workforce is rested enough to not need to pull the odd sickie.

Many Brits confess to feeling guilty when taking sick days, including when they were already working from home. Recent figures published by CanadaLife last year suggested that more than a third (35%) of UK employees continued to work while feeling unwell during lockdown. The most common reason for doing so was cited as fears over redundancy.

While the UK sick leave numbers could be seen to represent a strong work ethic across the British workforce, the number of individuals working despite feeling unwell is definitely a cause for concern.

A recent article by Wired makes it clear that our nation has a real problem with ‘presenteeism’ – that’s to say, people working from home (or even coming into the office) when they’re not truly well enough to do so.

Comparing sick leave across Europe

The European nation with the highest absence rate was by far Bulgaria, with an average of 22 days of sick leave per employee per year.

The sickness levels in the southeastern European nation are such a problem that absence is causing a major strain on the country’s business and the wider economy as a whole.

But, even larger economies aren’t immune to the issue. Germany’s workforce took an average of 18.3 days of sick leave, putting the nation in second-last place in the survey.

Russia narrowly had fewer sick days than the United Kingdom by 0.1 percent at 5.7 and the next country to follow the UK was Romania, with 8 days on average.

Check out the full results below:

Based on a data collected by Mitrefinch and taken from the latest figures published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Office of National Statistics (ONS) as well as a range of sources from other European countries using the CIPD-equivalent for each nation.

CountryAverage days sick leave per year
Switzerland2.4
Sweden2.4
Ukraine3.7
Malta4.2
Greece4.8
Russia5.7
United Kingdom 5.8
Romania 8.0
France8.0
San Marino8.6
Hungary8.8
Estonia9.0
Denmark9.0
Ireland9.2
Finland9.9
Netherlands10.0
Belarus10.2
Croatia10.3
Lithuania10.9
Luxembourg11.8
Spain12.3
Belgium12.6
Austria 13.1
Slovenia13.5
Slovakia14.1
Poland14.3
Norway16.0
Czech Republic (Czechia)16.3
Germany18.3
Bulgaria 22.0
Commenting on the figures, Mark Dewell, Managing Director at Mitrefinch, said:

“Workplace absences cost the UK economy a whopping £18 billion a year through lost productivity, with this figure expected to creep up to £21 billion in 2022 – so skipping time off work unnecessarily, say to recover from a big weekend, soon does add up! 

On top of the dip in productivity, employees who repeatedly call in sick put a strain on other members of staff who have to pick up their workload, which can impact workplace morale.

But, that’s really not to say taking a sick day should be seen as a weakness or a lack of commitment – especially during a global pandemic, with so many people suffering from burnout. 

Taking time out of work mode to recover from illnesses (be that mental or physical) is integral to the productivity and growth of any successful business, and the fact that over a third of UK workers admit to working despite being unwell is a serious cause for concern.”

Ross has been writing for Startups since May 2021, specialising in sustainable business and telephone systems. He also runs the successful entrepreneur's section of the website.

He's previously written for Conde Nast Traveller and the NME and is passionate about music, sustainability, and travelling. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.

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