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'Taking Sickies': Does the Public Sector Really have a Problem?

The fairly regular debate of the amount of sick absence or ‘sickies’  that public sector workers take, compared to those in the private sector, has got public attention again with the release of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey and Annual Population Survey Public sector workers more like to take sickies. Overall the surveys were good news in that the highlights were that:

· Between 1993 and 2011 the number of days ‘lost’ per worker through sick absence fell from 7.2 days to 4.5 days – or a 37% decline 

· Between 1993 and 2011, the total number of days lost through sick absence fell from 178 million to 131 million – a reduction of 26% However media attention was inevitably drawn to the suggested disparity between the levels of absence in the public and private sector.

The Daily Telegraph for example, argued that “This means that public sector workers are 63% more likely to take time off then their private sector counterparts”. This argument is based on the ONS data that indicated that 2.6% of public sector working hours were lost through sickness compared to 1.6% in the private sector – a 63% differential. However to properly and intelligently understand these figures my sense it that you need to appreciate two things. 

Firstly, as the ONS said in its summary, that there are differences in the types of jobs done in the two sectors and that some sectors have a higher likelihood of the incidence of sickness. It has generally been very difficult for surveys to take into account that it can be very hard – sometimes impossible – to find a private sector equivalent to some public sector positions- and this can corrupt any meaningful analysis. 

Secondly, I think it is critical to understand that the ONS statistics come not from employers but from interviews and answers given by a selection of individuals in employment when asked how much of their working time cannot be completed because of sickness or injury. This point is important because these results are based on what employees say rather than what may be recorded by employers- which tends to be a more reliable benchmark. For example, the 2011 Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) Absence Management report that surveyed nearly 600 employers (covering 2 million employees) on sick absence indicated the following: 

· the number of days lost was 3.4% (ONS: 1.8%) 

· the number of days lost in the public sector was 4.0% (ONS:2.6%) 

· the number of days lost in the private sector was 3.1% (ONS:: 1.6%) 

· average number of days sick absence per employee was 7.7 days (ONS:4.5) 

· average number of days sick absence per public sector employee was 9.1 days 

· average number of days sick absence per private sector employee was 7.1 days 

Now according to the CIPD 2011 survey the disparity between the public and private sector was 29% rather than the 63% referred to with the ONS data. This is supported by the 28% difference between average levels of absence (9.1 v 7.1) in the two sectors. I think this helps to illustrate the fact that it is very difficult to produce particularly accurate absence management data because what is available are surveys either of employees or of employers. In addition, the ONS concentrates on the % of hours lost whilst the CIPD survey generally looks at days lost. The difference in the two surveys indicate for example, that individuals are reporting between 40-50% fewer absences than that of employers which could possibly be explained by the populations that both surveys cover.

However, there are consistencies in these and indeed other significant surveys that allow you to confidently say a number of things:

  • sick absence is generally higher in the public sector by a good margin (probably around the 25% mark)
  • absences are higher in organisations that employ larger numbers of people
  • absences are higher amongst women
  • absences are lowest in London and highest in the North of England and Scotland

These are not new findings and those of us who specialise in the area of absence management and well being will be familiar with these findings and we would argue that there are very sound reasons for the above. These would include the synergy that for example most public sector organisations tend to employ a substantial number of people, they generally employ higher numbers of women, are in the main located outside of London etc. Also linked into this is almost certainly the fact that public sector workers –especially in the current difficult climate – are feeling less engaged with their employer (the Government) which is often a driving force behind absence levels and the fact that public sector employees tend to have more generous sick pay entitlements. Where does this leave employers keen to address absence in their organisation? I think these surveys help to give some insight into the factors behind high levels of absence and that you do need to consider strategies to address these concerns, especially if you employ large numbers of people, have a gender bias in your workforce and if you employ people outside of the Capital. Just why these are factors and what you can do about it will be the subject of my next blog, so keep reading!