Days off work for long term sickness are costing employers hugely. Poor health and obesity  is costing the economy at least £21.5bn a year and is not going to aide any recovery from the recession say the results of a 25 year study.

The study by pollsters Gallup was commissioned by the government and is expected to be published later this month. The aim is that it will highlight the amount of people who are living with a long-term illness and might require more support from their employers.

Over  10% of those involved in the study were both overweight and had three or more health conditions on top of that. As a result they are taking over three weeks of sick leave a year. Dan Witters, Gallup principal and research director of the study, said: "Only one in five British full-time workers are in optimal health. Because of this, workers miss an estimated 103m days at work a year."

Ben Leedle, Healthways president and chief executive, who are a partner in the research said: "The implication of the chronic disease burden of the UK's workforce is at alarming levels." In some industries in particular the cost of sickness is so crippling that employers are not able to afford to recruit extra help or to offer overtime to current staff to cover the deficit as the budget is too small to cover both the sick pay and overtime rates. This often means that those who are not sick are working ever harder to keep things moving. This of course is not ideal as it could in itself lead to more sickness, especially stress related diseases.

The research is not exhaustive as part time workers are not included, nor is there provision made for those people who, although ill still come to work, in a trend termed “presenteesim”.

Conditions counted in the survey included recurring back or knee pain as well as diagnosed depression. However, they do not include stress or anxiety, which are among the fastest growing causes of sickness absence. These diseases are especially important for employers to make an effort to understand as they can have a very strong impact on their workforces and might not always be dealt with with as much sympathy as the more tangible illnesses.

The study has shown that Britain has the highest rate of asthma and a rate of depression 50% higher than in Germany. The more an employer is aware of the kind of illnesses that affect their employees the more prepared they can be to make any necessary reasonable adjustments, benefiting both them and the employees alike.

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