Most Common Reasons for Sick Leave (What Does the Data Say?)

Andrew Buck's avatar Andrew Buck May 1, 2024

Sick days are a normal, unavoidable thing for any business with human employees.

Workers in the US get an average of 6-10 sick days per year, which comes in well behind many other countries (workers in the UK, for example, get up to 28 weeks of sick leave per year).

The vast majority of sickness absences are real, legitimate reasons that the employee should not come in to work. In this article, we’ll examine the most common reasons people call in sick, focusing on several studies that give us real insights into how sick leave breaks down in the real world.

Data: Most Common Sickness Absence Reasons

We sorted through multiple sources of research to get an idea of the most common reasons people take sick leave.

CIPD Study (2016)

The CIPD’s 2016 Absence Management report examines many factors to do with sick leave in the UK, including the most common sickness absence reasons.

They found that minor illnesses were by far the most common reasons for short-term absences, coming in as the number one most common cause for 75% of employees (81% for those in non-manual labor work, compared to 64% for manual labor workers).

Stress was the 2nd most common cause for non-manual workers, while musculoskeletal injuries was #2 for those in manual labor.

Most common cause of short-term absenceAll EmployeesManual LaborNon-Manual Labor
Minor illness (e.g. colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines)75%64%81%
Muscularskeletal Injuries2%13%2%
Home/family/carer responsibilities2%2%2%
Mental health (e.g. depression/anxiety)2%2%2%
Back pain2%10%1%
Recurring medical conditions (e.g. asthma, angina, allergies)0%1%0%
Injuries/accidents not related to work1%1%0%
Acute medical conditions (e.g. stroke, heart attack and cancer)1%0%1%
Pregnancy-related absence (not maternity leave)0%0%0%
Work-related injuries or accidents0%1%0%
Alcohol or drug-related conditions0%0%0%
Non-genuine absence (e.g. ‘pulling a sickie’)1%2%1%

Expanding to look at all causes that fall in the top five most common causes, we find that minor illnesses are in the top five for 95% of employees.

Interestingly, non-genuine absences (e.g. calling in sick when you are not sick) are in the top five most common reasons for a short-term absence for 24% of employees in the study, rising to 30% for those in manual labor jobs.

In top 5 most common causes of short-term absenceAll EmployeesManual LaborNon-Manual Labor
Minor illness (e.g. colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines)95%80%88%
Muscularskeletal Injuries44%48%34%
Home/family/carer responsibilities35%25%33%
Mental health (e.g. depression/anxiety)34%26%30%
Back pain34%45%25%
Recurring medical conditions (e.g. asthma, angina, allergies)31%24%31%
Injuries/accidents not related to work18%20%20%
Acute medical conditions (e.g. stroke, heart attack and cancer)16%14%18%
Pregnancy-related absence (not maternity leave)11%7%10%
Work-related injuries or accidents6%15%3%
Alcohol or drug-related conditions2%3%2%
Non-genuine absence (e.g. ‘pulling a sickie’)24%30%20%

ONS (2022)

The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) outlines the top five most common reasons for sickness absences each year.

Their 2022 report finds that minor illnesses are the most common reason, making up 29.3% of absences, followed by musculoskeletal injuries, at 10.5%.

Comparing their 2022 data vs previous years, we can note an increase in respiratory conditions, and a decrease in absences related to mental health conditions.

Minor illnesses30.40%26.10%21.90%29.30%
Musculoskeletal problems16.30%15.40%13.30%10.50%
Mental health conditions10.90%11.60%9.70%7.90%
Respiratory conditions3.60%4.50%6.00%8.30%

CIPD (2023)

In the CIPD’s Health and Wellbeing At Work 2023 study, the company looks at respondents’ top three most common reasons for short-term and long-term absences.

For 94% of respondents, minor illnesses were among the top three reasons for a short-term absence. Next most common were musculoskeletal injuries and mental health.

In terms of long-term absences, mental health was the most common to be found in respondents’ top three most common causes, followed by musculoskeletal injuries and acute medical conditions (such as heart attacks, strokes and cancer).

CauseIn Top Three Causes for Short-Term AbsenceIn Top Three Causes for Long-Term Absence
Minor illness
(eg colds/flu, stomach upsets,
headaches or migraines)
Musculoskeletal Injuries45%51%
Mental health (e.g. depression or anxiety)39%63%
COVID-19 (including confirmed cases, self-isolation, quarantine)37%
Acute Medical Conditions (e.g. stroke, heart attack or cancer)46%
Recurring medical conditions (e.g. asthma, angina or allergies)19%

Statista/NHS (2023)

Statista shares data on the most common reasons for sickness absences among staff at England’s NHS, for the month of March, 2023.

Anxiety, depression and other psychiatric illnesses were far and away the most common reason, accounting for nearly a quarter of all absences.

Second was cough, cold and flu, with 11.2%, followed by musculoskeletal problems and gastrointestinal issues.

Cause of Sickness AbsencePercentage
Mental health24.20%
Cold, cough, flu11.20%
Other musculoskeletal problems8.10%
Gastrointestinal problems7.80%
Chest and respiratory problems6.20%
Infectious diseases5.90%
Injury or fracture4.50%
Back problems3.90%
Genitourinary and gynaecological disorders3.00%
Pregnancy related disorders2.90%
Other – not elsewhere classified6.40%

Flamingo (2023)

In 2023 we conducted our own research, based on data gathered from multiple studies, as well as our own internal data from our absence tracker software.

We found that stomach issues were the most widely reported cause for people to take a sick day, followed by COVID-19, then stress or anxiety.

Compiling the Most Common Reasons for Sick Leave

Based on the research above, let’s list out and explain the most common reasons people are likely to call in sick and/or miss time from work.

Minor Illnesses (Including Cough, Cold, Flu)

For most people, the most likely cause for a sick day will be a minor, passing illness. This could be a cough or cold, flu, headache, or just generally feeling under the weather.

Musculoskeletal Injuries

Musculoskeletal injuries are another common reason – from minor sprains and strains to more serious injuries, such as broken bones. 

Physical injuries are more likely to result in sick leave for workers in manual labor roles.

Infectious Viruses or Illnesses (Including COVID)

Illnesses which can spread easily from person to person are always going to be a big cause for sick leave, usually increasing in certain times of the year as bugs spread around.

Gastrointestinal Problems

The likelihood of gastrointestinal problems as a cause for sick leave seems to vary a lot from source to source – we found they were extremely common, while other studies found a lot fewer instances to report.

Anxiety, Depression and Other Mental Health Issues

More and more of us today are aware of the importance of mental health, and that mental health issues are a legitimate reason for sick leave, just like a flu or a muscle injury would be.

Learn More: The Importance and Benefits of Taking a Mental Health Day


While stress could be lumped together with mental health issues, as above, though many studies put this as its own category for the prevalence over stress-related absences today.

Chronic Medical Conditions (e.g. Asthma)

Some people suffer from ongoing, chronic medical conditions that may cause them to be absent from work at times (asthma is a common example, along with allergies that flare up from time to time).

Eye/Nose/Throat Problems

ENT (eye, nose and throat) issues are also very common, and may be grouped together with minor illnesses for some studies.

Pregnancy-Related Issues

Pregnant employees are often more likely to require sick leave, due to illnesses or issues related to their pregnancy, such as vomiting/morning sickness, aches and pains, or pregnancy-related fatigue.

Learn More: Maternity Leave Around the World

Illegitimate Absences

Finally, illegitimate absences are a reality – though most cases of sick leave are real and legitimate illnesses or injuries, there are likely to be a small percentage of absences that are actually sick leave abuse.

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How Businesses Can Reduce Sick Leave

First, let’s make sure to avoid the misconception that businesses should aim to get their sick leave rate down to zero.

Illnesses and injuries will happen. It’s unavoidable (unless you remove all human beings from your team and replace them with robots).

Any business with a reasonable headcount will have to deal with sick leave at some point.

That being said, if you’re the owner of a business or managing a team, it is in your best interest to try to reduce the number of sick days taken. Fewer sick days means less expense for the company, as well as signifying that your employees are in better health, which is great for them as well.

Of course, you could cut down the rate of sick leave by declining sick leave requests, putting pressure on employees to be absent more often, or reducing the number of sick days available.

However, doing this is focusing on the wrong thing, and is likely to lead to big problems down the line, such as lower productivity and higher turnover due to unhappy employees who work through times when they really need a day off.

Here are a few ways to reduce the rate of sick leave in a positive way, that leads to more benefits for you and your employees.

Offer Wellness-Focused Benefits for Employees

In your employee benefits package, offer benefits focused on improving the health and wellness of your team members.

This could include:

By helping your employees improve their health (both physical and mental), you should see an overall reduction in the number of sick days.

Manage Employees’ Workloads

A lot of sick leave is either a direct or indirect result of overworked employees.

Excessive workloads lead to stress and mental health issues, which are one of the most common causes of sick leave mentioned above.

Stress and anxiety can also lead to a decreased immune system and physical health issues, which increases the rate of sick leave in your company.

Create a Stress-Free Working Environment

Aside from making sure your employees don’t have too much work on their plate, make sure you’re doing all you can to limit stress in the workplace.

Stamp out any kind of office politics or negative energy, and focus on building a professional working environment, where people are excited to come to work and contribute.

Encourage Employees to Take Sick Leave When They Are Sick

It may seem like a paradox, but encouraging employees to take sick leave can actually decrease the overall rate of sick leave in your business.

Many illnesses get better with a day or two of rest. But if a person feels they need to push through and go to work when they’re unwell, the illness may linger and develop into a long-term or chronic issue.

Thus, discouraging sick leave can end up costing more in the long run. It’s better to accept (and actually encourage) a reasonable usage of sick days, to keep your people in better health long-term.

Learn More: All You Need to Know About Presenteeism in the Workplace

Provide Employees with Enough Paid Sick Leave and PTO

Finally, make sure your team members get enough paid sick leave and time off.

As discussed above, sick leave is important for maintaining the long-term health of your employees, and they will be less likely to take the time off they need if it means they’ll lose a day’s pay.

In addition, regular short breaks and vacations are a great way for employees to manage stress and maintain their mental health, which will mean fewer sick days and less absenteeism.

So, again, it might seem like a paradox, but it works. Being generous with PTO generally pays dividends long-term, with a reduction in sick days and higher engagement and productivity from your team members.

Andrew Buck's avatar

Andrew Buck

Andrew is the content manager at Flamingo. He has managed teams in multiple industries, for both physical and remote businesses, and has experience dealing with the ins and outs of HR and leave management on a daily basis.

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