THE number of people taking time off work due to illness is continuing to rise to near-record levels as health care workers brace for the next COVID-19 wave to peak. People staying home with a fever, cough or other symptoms are in significantly higher than the five-year average, and well above 2020 and 2021 rates. The strain is being felt by workers and employers alike, says Hunter Business CEO Bob Hawes, with anywhere between a ten and 30 per cent impact on work forces in both small and large businesses. "It's a real strain ... particularly in parts of allied health due to high exposure," he said. "If you lose a key person, a whole production line might have to be stood down, or an entire restaurant. You can't just get people to fill in if they don't have the expertise." RELATED READING: Hunter Workers secretary Leigh Shears agreed, saying the workforce was under significant pressure right across the region. "As we've seen, daily cases have shot through the roof, with extraordinary numbers of hospitalisations which are starting to creep up again... and the workforce, working people are exhausted or exhausting all avenues they have with regards to personal leave, and annual leave to make sure they do their bit not to pass the virus on. "We have put a call out encouraging employers to give consideration to all of these factors and support their workers in times of need. "We've seen what the alternative is, in the early days of the pandemic with work place transmission of COVID-19 - it closed industries down, and I don't think anyone wants to see that happen again." Likely more than one in ten health workers are currently off sick, caring for someone who is ill, or in isolation, says NSW AMA president Dr Michael Bonning. The official number of health care workers off work due to COVID is about 2,500 out of a workforce of 140,000, Dr Bonning said. "But in actual fact its many times that many people who are away from work because they're just the ones away for COVID reasons," he said. "When you take into account other respiratory viruses and indirect reasons why people are off work, you find that that numbers jumps up probably to double digit percentages, and that is borne out by anecdotal evidence from entire units who really struggle at different points of time because there are only small numbers of people with that specialised knowledge. "The second group is we see that all the time in general practices where half or more of the workforce is off." Labour Force statistics show that around 780,000 people across Australia were working fewer hours than usual due to illness in June, almost double the usual number seen at the start of winter, says Australian Bureau of Statistics head of labour statistics Bjorn Jarvis. "In line with large numbers of COVID-19 cases in June, the number of people working reduced hours due to illness continued to be high," he said. It was highest among people in the 40-54 age bracket, and down from a record level in May for those aged 25-39 and over 55. WHAT DO YOU THINK? We've made it a whole lot easier for you to have your say. Our new comment platform requires only one log-in to access articles and to join the discussion on the Newcastle Herald website. Find out how to register so you can enjoy civil, friendly and engaging discussions. Sign up for a subscription here.