THE number of days lost to sickness absence has fallen by 47 million over the past 20 years, according to official figures.

The total has been cut from 178 million in 1993 to 131 million last year, an average of just over four days a year per worker.

The percentage of hours lost to illness in private firms was 1.8% compared with 2.9% in the public sector, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

Workers in London had the lowest percentage of hours lost to sickness, at 1.5%, while the highest were in the East Midlands, Wales and the North East at 2.4%. Scotland had a rate of 2.2%.

The main cause for working days lost last year was musculoskeletal conditions such as back and neck pain, leading to 31 million days lost, followed by minor illnesses such as coughs and colds (27 million).

Around 15 million days were lost because of stress, anxiety or depression, up from 11.8 million in 2010.

Men generally have lower sickness absence rates than women. The new figures show falls among all workers and all age groups since 1993.

Sickness absence rises with age but falls after eligibility for the state pension.

Dr John Philpott, director of The Jobs Economist, said: "Although the overall rate of sickness absence from work is on a broadly downward trend, more working days are being lost to the common mental health problems of stress, depression and anxiety, which accounted for 15.2 million lost working days in 2013, up from 11.8 million days lost in 2010."