Sickness absence increased slightly last year despite a government drive to replace sick notes with “fit notes”, new research showed today.

The UK economy lost 190 million working days to absence last year, with each employee taking an average of 6.5 days off sick, said the CBI.

The rate of absence last year was marginally higher than in 2009, when employees averaged 6.4 sick days, the lowest rate since the survey began in 1987.

The 190 million days cost employers £17bn, including over £2.7bn from 30.4 million days of non-genuine sickness absence - so-called “sickies”, said the business group.

Despite strong support for the fit note initiative, employers said they were disappointed by their experience so far, with two thirds believing it had not yet helped their rehabilitation policy, and 71 per cent not confident that GPs were using the fit note differently from the old sick note system.

Katja Hall, the CBI’s chief policy director, said: “There’s been no let up in the cost of absence to the UK economy, which runs into billions of pounds a year. Although many organisations have been successful in bringing down levels of absence, the gap between the best and worst has widened.

“The substantial costs of absence to the economy put a premium on managing longer-term absence well. The fit note is a great initiative, which could play an important role in helping people back to work and stopping them slide into long-term absence. But employers are far from convinced that the scheme is working properly and don’t think GPs are getting the necessary training.

“Sadly, more days were lost to non-genuine absence than in 2009. Sickies are unfair on colleagues and damage employers’ competitiveness at a critical point in the recovery.”

Public sector workers took more sick days than those in private firms at an average of 8.1 days a year compared with 5.9 days, an improvement on last year’s 8.3 days, the study showed.

Long-term absence accounted for a third of all time lost to sickness, said the report.

Mental health issues are the single biggest cause of long-term absence, followed by musculoskeletal disorders, back pain and cancer treatment.