Page content

The findings from the report ‘Sickness Absence. Lessons for Northern Ireland Businesses and Managers’ show that the sickness absence rate in Northern Ireland rose 1.9% from 2019 to 2.7% in 2022. This equates to 6.0 days per worker.

Overall, economists from Ulster University found that Wales had the highest sickness absence rate (3.6%) in 2022, an increase from 3% in 2019. During the same period, they found Scotland had an absence rate of 3% increasing from 2% respectively, whilst England remained the lowest (2.5%).

Among the top reasons for days lost across the UK in 2022 were accidents, poisoning, infectious diseases and skin disorders, accounting for 26% while minor aliments including coughs, colds and gastrointestinal illnesses accounted for just under a quarter of days lost (24%).

Gillian Martin, Senior Economist, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre said:

“Sickness is not biased in whom it affects, nor is it predictable or entirely avoidable but absence from the workplace can result in negative personal, business and economic impacts through reduced wellbeing, lost wages, output and productivity.

“In 2022 5.1million days were lost due to sickness across Northern Ireland, an increase from 3.8 million in 2019. Our research found that 35% of people in NI have a long-term health condition, this coupled with NI’s growing and ageing population, suggest that sickness and therefore absences are likely to be a lingering issue and so it is important that firms and managers are supported and encouraged to act to reduce the negative impacts.”

Sickness absence by firm size

The report found that UK businesses of all size bands experienced increased absence rates, smaller UK businesses, with fewer than 25 employees, had an absence rate of 2.3% in 2022, a 20 year high for this size band. By comparison businesses with 25-49 and 50-499 employees both had a rate of 2.8%, whilst businesses with 500 or more employees had a sickness absence rate of 2.9%.

Gillian Martin, Senior Economist, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre said:

“ The research suggests that the impact of absences is intensified for smaller firms, despite these firms having lower absence rates. This is important in NI due to the high number of SME’s (99.6%) in our local economy. Smaller firms are more adversely impacted as they lack resources such as occupational health, human resources and are more likely to be unable to afford temporary staff which creates extra workload for other staff. The are also less likely to be able to pay above Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) so employees are less likely to take time off which may result in employees going to work ill and working at a reduced capacity.”

Sickness absence rate by sector

The report found that those working in Health and Social work in the UK had the highest sickness absence rate (4.2%). While those working in Information and Communication by comparison had the lowest at 1.4%, which could be linked to the ability to work remotely. The Accommodation and Food sector experienced the largest sickness absence increase of all sectors in the UK rising to 2.9% in 2022 – an increase of 1.6% in the past four years.

Sickness absence in the public sector and Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS)

When compared to UK and RoI civil services, economists found that the NICS continually has higher sickness absences.

Overall, in the NICS 5.7% of working days were lost in 2022/23 compared to 5.9% in 2019/20. The direct salary cost of absence in 2022/23 was £39million, or 3.7% of the NICS pay bill.

“This pay profile implies absences are greater amongst more junior grade staff. When broken down by grade level the general trend is for absences to decrease as seniority increases. For instance, in 2022/23 individuals who were Grade 5 and above (senior civil servants) lost 6.1 working days per staff year compared to 13.8 workings days lost for Administrative staff." Mrs Martin said.


The report identified several recommendations for NI businesses, managers and policy makers including the need to improve management knowledge of how to support employee’s health and wellbeing in the workplace which could in turn help reduce absences particularly those caused by non-medical or work related problems. The Report also recommends that businesses of all sizes should be encouraged to record absences to internally understand the impact for their business and create a sickness absence and wellbeing policy outlining the process of sickness absences for both manager and employee.

Speaking on the report’s recommendations, Mrs Martin said:

"Businesses in the private sector would benefit from further research, specifically a Northern Ireland focused sickness absence survey to build upon the evidence provided in this report and to better measure the impact, particularly productivity, on firms. This may enable policy makers to better understand the state of sickness absence for Northern Ireland firms, whether businesses themselves recognise the impact, determine if training is conducted, and what specific training needs related to sickness absence are required, all of which would have wider benefits for the NI economy and employee wellbeing.”