The cost of public sector absenteeism is rising as official figures show that the average civil servant in the UK took two weeks off sick last year, more than 40 per cent more than their private sector counterparts.
An official report by the Cabinet Office put the cost to taxpayers of sick leave among almost half a million non-industrial civil servants at £386 million and said that the problem "continues to be a significant operational and financial burden" on the efficient functioning of government.
Moreover, the average of ten working days’ absence in 2003 was a rise on the 9.8 days in 2002 and 9.2 in 2001, and comes despite the government's assertion that it would reducing civil service sick leave to 7.2 days by 2003.
In total, 4,886,146 working days were lost during 2003, the equivalent of losing more than 19,000 staff.
Women took an average of 11.3 days sick while men were absent for an average of 8.5 days.
Earlier this year, a survey of 1,110 UK employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that public sector workers take 40 per cent more days off than their private sector counterparts, costing the taxpayer £4bn a year - the equivalent of an extra 1p on income tax.
The CIPD found that public workers took an average of 10.7 days off work sick in 2003 compared with only 7.8 days for the private sector
Merely reducing the public sector absence rate to the same level as the private sector would save £1bn a year.
The Cabinet Office figures also show that more than a third of staff took no time off sick at all and a further third took between one and five days off. But a hard-core of more than one in ten of civil servants took in excess of four working weeks off due to claimed ill-health.
It also emerged that women civil servants with young families were particularly prone to taking sick leave, while Monday was the most common day for a period of time off work to begin.
Younger staff were most likely to take short periods of self-certified sick-leave, while the more senior the employee, the less likely they were to take time off sick.
The highest levels of sickness absence were found to be in the Child Support Agency (13.8 days), the Rent Service and Legal Secretariat (13 days) and the Prison Service (12.5 days). In contrast, staff at the National Savings Department took an average of only 1.5 days off sick.
The report found that some seven out of ten absences that lasted between one and five working days were associated with such conditions as colds, upset stomachs and headaches.
Absences lasting more than three weeks were dominated by "mental illness, symptoms ill-defined and musculoskeletal (conditions)", but in many cases, it found that no clear explanation for the absence was given.
Cabinet Office minister, Ruth Kelly, admitted that absenteeism was still rising despite a target to cut sick leave by 30 per cent from its 1998 level.
Meanwhile Oliver Heald, the Conservatives' constitutional affairs spokesman, said: "This is all part of Labour’s culture of waste in the public sector.
"Labour are all talk, failing to deliver on their own promises on tackling absenteeism, and leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill," he added.