Are Britain’s Workers Getting Sicker?

UK-worker sick leave is at a ten-year high. How increased stress levels may be playing a role in a troubling trend.

It was an obvious concern during the pandemic—keeping workers healthy. Now, the health issue is creeping back at an alarming rate, and the reason may surprise leaders.

A recent survey found that UK employees averaged 7.8 days of sick leave over the past year—the highest level in over a decade, and a 34% increase over the pre-pandemic figure of 5.8 days. Certainly, new COVID-19 strains and other illnesses have kept people at home. But mental-health concerns now seem to be playing an outsized role: over three-quarters of UK employers reported stress-related absences in their company within the past year. 

Experts say a string of stressors—Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living—may be finally taking their toll. “When you have an extended period of time moving from crisis to crisis, there is a cumulative effect,” says Seth De Grow, a Korn Ferry associate client partner in its Leadership practice.

The latest figures come from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which analyzed sickness absence and employee health among 918 organizations representing 6.5 million employees. Some 76% of respondents reported they had taken time off due to stress in the past year. Recurring cases of COVID-19 and long COVID were among the reasons workers took time off, as was the cost-of-living crisis.

These results raise disturbing issues for UK firms, which are already struggling with a tough economy and with efforts to convince people to come back to the office. Experts say leaders have a tricky balancing act to maintain, keeping up production amid these stresses while also trying to reduce them for the sake of their employees’ mental health. Emma Cornwall, a Korn Ferry associate client partner and leadership expert, says firms offering more flexibility during the day can mitigate the high stress levels of employees who may be dealing with childcare and commuting. One recent survey found that nearly half of UK workers will take advantage of their right to day-one flexible working when it comes into effect. “This is an opportunity for leaders to help reduce the cost of going to work,” says Cornwall.

Increased communication from the top could go a long way to bolster the mental health of employees as well. According to a recent survey, over half of knowledge workers say effective communication—which leaders achieved during the pandemic, but less so since then—would improve their job satisfaction. Other surveys find that "meaningful feedback" can significantly engage workers. “That sense of value can translate into a sense of security,” says De Grow.

Across the country, COVID cases have picked up, creating tricky issues for firms. In the survey, 50% of firms said their employees have experienced long COVID over the past 12 months, up from 46% the previous year. More than a third (37%) of organizations reported COVID-19 was still a significant cause of short-term absence.

But stress remains the biggest stumbling block, particularly for younger workers. Over half of UK Gen Zs claim they feel stressed all or most of the time—above the global average. It’s possible this issue is tied to working remotely: the problem with video calls is that they’re transactional and don’t allow for empathetic human relationships to develop, says Grant Duncan, Korn Ferry’s managing director and EMEA sector lead for media, entertainment, and digital. He suggests leaders focus on hosting engaging social events at regular intervals. “They can encourage employees to come in and connect with people they haven't seen in a while—or even make new friends,” he says.


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Organization Strategy consulting capabilities.