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Absence Management: so why are my employees sick so often?

In my previous blog Does the public sector have a problem with sick absence? I laid out some of the generally accepted ‘knowns’ about employee sick absence i.e. what a succession of data and surveys indicate, and in this article, I am going to put some more meat onto these indicators and  how they may impact on your business if you are aiming to improve the level of employee absence in your organisation.

To recap, surveys and data suggest that on the whole:

  • sick absence is generally higher in the public sector by a good margin (probably around the 25% mark)

Now, this particular issue is a very ‘hot’ one at the moment in the context of the public sector reform that David Cameron is keen to push through as part of his ‘re-inventing Government’ initiative.(good luck with that, Dave).

Although people disagree on the level of additional sick absence that public sector workers take compared to their private sector counterparts, the evidence would seem to show that more government workers take time off. Now, part of the thinking behind why this should be is linked to a range of factors. These include the fact that :

  • absences are higher in organisations that employ larger numbers of people

A stark demonstration of this argument can be found in the 2011 CIPD Absence Management survey where the level of sick absence directly related to the numbers of people employed. For example, where less than 50 people were employed, the average worker was sick 5.6 days a year, for 50-249 staff, it was 6.4 days, 250-999 was 8.2, 1,000-4,999 was 9.2 days, but for those organisations with more than 5,000 employees sick absence was the highest at 9.6 days per person.-now that is a staggering 71% more than people working at organisations employing less than 50.

Now, why should this be? There is an argument that perhaps staff who form part of a small group know that they will be missed if they are away and feel the need to keep well and not take time off, whilst for those who work in very large enterprises, they may feel that they will not be missed and feel ‘able’ to take sick leave. However, there may be a  more basic factor in play here. Smaller companies may not be able to offer generous sick pay entitlement whilst public sector organisations do and that realisation may be a big factor in the incidence of sick absence i.e. if I am sick, I won’t (or will) get paid!

Another reason why the public sector has higher level of absences may be due to:

  • absences are higher amongst women

Now, this is a tricky one. This suggests that there is a gender bias and that women are more prone to sick absence than men. Certainly, the figures suggest that scenario but the reasons behind this phenomenon may be more complex than just being an issue of sex. Previous work in this area sponsored by the Cabinet Office in Tony Blair’s government suggested that this might be due to the fact that most Carers tend to be female and that when they need to take time off to care for someone when they have exhausted their annual leave entitlement, they may take sick leave instead.  What is relevant however is that the public sector employs more women relative to the private sector which would explain why this apparent gender bias impacts on the public sector area. But clearly, more work is needed in this area. In addition:

  • absences are lowest in London and highest in the North of England and Scotland

It is clear that apart from an organisational size and gender bias, there is also a regional differential too. According to the 2011 CIPD survey, the area of the UK where absence levels are the lowest is London with absence running at an average 6.4 days per person. The highest, by comparison, is Scotland with 10.6 days – a difference of some 65%. Now, this is likely to echo the wellness and life expectancy of regions as a whole, and figures again indicate that people on average are healthier and live longer in the capital whilst in Scotland people have poorer health and reduced life expectancy.

The public sector suffers in this respect because much of its government departments and authorities are located outside of London and its main conurbations have high levels of reported sick absence (Midlands – 10 days, Yorkshire 9 days & North East England – 9 days). What is behind these regional differences is believed to be linked to how affluent (or poor) people are and what people’s status at work is. People who are financially better off and who have control over their work environment tend to report better levels of health (e.g. someone may be able to afford gym membership, to have private medical insurance, to be able to take regular holidays etc) compared to those whose salaries are more modest and who are lower down their organisation’s structure. This, for example, explains why in the Civil Service, members of the Senior Civil Service (the Mandarins to you and more) take little sick leave, whilst the majority of the absence is taken by more junior administrative staff. The latter tend to have minimal control at their workplace (they have no one to delegate to and are usually told what to do) and are paid minimal salaries and again would indicate that they are more likely to be absent from work through sickness.

This is a fascinating area and whilst root causes of the level of absences are still subject to a lot of opinion and discussion, these factors can help you predict where absences may occur and whereas an employer you may need to concentrate your efforts