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Public Sector Sick Absence

HR Review August 2012

One of the common debates in the area of absence management and well being is the perception that absence in the public sector- especially the Civil Service –is much greater than that in the private sector and that specific strategies need to be put in place to address this issue.

Now, the popular printed media in particular tends to get quite worked up about this and it generally does not take much for either the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail to run stories with headlines like ‘public sector take more sickies…’.

Now as someone who has extensively worked in improving the field of public sector absence management, these headlines and stories can be very misleading, especially when the science of absence management can be ignored.

There is the ongoing debate about what set of figures you  can reliably use to measure sick absence in the workplace of course, with four sets of data being generally used. – surveys taken by the CIPD, CBI, the ONS and returns across the public sector co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office and they produce slightly different results which can make realistic comparisons difficult to make. For example,  the CBI & CIPD surveys are of employers whilst the ONS is the result of interviews with employees themselves and they might be less forthcoming in revealing the lengths of absences.

However people usually rely on the CIPD & CBI surveys as reasonable barometers of the absence situation due to the large numbers surveyed (covering up to 3 million employees). Here, the latest figures indicate the following picture:

  • Private Sector: 6.5 days absence per employee
  • Public Sector: 8.6 days absence per employee

Taken in isolation, these figures would seem to support a fairly widely held view that absence amongst the public sector workers is significantly higher than the private sector colleagues, with, on average, an extra 2.1 days being taken or a 32% increase.

However, I do think that you need to use a great deal of caution in coming to that assessment. I say that because when you investigate these figures you do find that the increase can substantially (but not totally) explained by the make up of the two respective work forces. In particular, the public sector employs more older workers (the median age is 44) and significantly more females (53%), and it is these two groups where figures show account for larger absences. There is also what could be called the ‘Northern Influence’ whereby again data shows that workers in the north of the country tend to have worser health and consequently higher levels of sick absence, and again, the public sector tends to employ more people in the north compared to that of the private sector.

Now, that is not to say that after taking into account these differences that there is not a ‘problem’ in the public sector- there is. However my assessment would be that it is less marked than these crude figures might indicate. The coalition government is committed to major public sector reform- it is currently engaged in how to address poor performance across the Civil Service for example, and sick absence is also on their radar. One strategy that the Cabinet Office Minister Frances Maude MP, is interested in is looking at the entitlement to sick pay which at six months full sick pay you have to say is very, very generous – especially when put next to what private sector employees can expect to receive. There are other factors too. The public sector as a general rule are less good at motivating and engaging their workforces and there is a keen connection between how engaged a person is and how much sick leave they take, and the challenge in managing sick absence is to have smart strategies to improve the level of engagement across the public sector workforce to not only have more productive staff but to have a workforce who are ‘Healthy, Happy and Here’.

Author: Bryan Matthew

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