Lower paid NHS staff and junior workers are more likely to take time off sick than their more senior colleagues, a report has revealed.
People working in areas of England with high deprivation are also more likely to report absence than their counterparts in more affluent places.
NHS sickness absence varies widely across the country, with some organisations reporting a rate of 1.6% while others have 6.8%.
Healthcare assistants have the highest average rate of absence with 6.5%, closely followed by ambulance staff (6.3%) and nurses, midwives and health visitors (5.2%).
Across the UK the area with the lowest average sickness rate is London, while the North East has the highest.
The study, completed by the Audit Commission, showed that ambulance trusts as well as mental health and learning disability trusts have some of the largest rates.
Researchers pointed out that the NHS could save around £290m if sickness absence rates were cut to the lowest 25%.
NHS staff sickness absence is believed to cost £1.7bn a year, and is higher than in the private sector.
Deprivation and staff pay grade account for 61% of the variation in hospital trust absence and 38% in primary care trusts (PCTs), according to the study.
Experts are unclear exactly why deprivation and pay scale influence absence rates so much, although "morale and ability to control one's work" may play a role for those who are lower paid.
However, the remaining variation is down to "systematic differences" between NHS organisations and the way they manage, support and motivate their staff, the study says.
Factors may include how long-term sickness absence is managed by an organisation, and whether musculoskeletal conditions could be eased by better training on the right way to lift patients or use equipment.
If people are off with stress, managers should look at ways of dealing with their workload.
The estimated direct cost of sickness absence in the NHS ranges from less than £700 to just over £2,700 per full-time member of staff.
Andy McKeon, Managing Director of Health at the Audit Commission, said: "Managers need to be realistic about what they can achieve and accept that some staff, such as frontline workers who deal with sickly patients all day, are likely to have more days off sick than, for example, those without direct patient care responsibilities."
Copyright © Press Association 2011
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"Sickness has a very strong element of poor morale as its root cause and it is interesting that the least valued of the nursing staff (HCAs – who are doing almost exactly what SENs used to do) have the highest sick rates. 'Professionalising' nursing and doing away with State Enrolment has only served to create a division between the people charged with patient care, and creating 'haves' and 'have-nots' is a root cause of poor morale. The sooner that HCAs who are doing have a qualified standing – and probably the word "nurse" in their title – the better their sickness rates might be" – Alan Moore, Cheshire