Workers in Britain’s public sector take 40 per cent more days off than their private sector counterparts, costing the taxpayer £4bn a year or the equivalent of an extra 1p on income tax.
A survey of 1,110 UK employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that public sector workers took an average of 10.7 days off work sick in 2003 compared with 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 overall average level of sickness absence for 2003 was 9.1 working days per employee (4 per cent of working days), a slight increase from 9 days for the previous year.
The cost of absence has also increased from £567 per employee to £588 during the past year - a rise of 3.7 per cent - with the cost of absence particularly high in the public sector at £706 per employee.
The highest absence levels were in the food, drink and tobacco and transport sectors with 12 days per year taken off. This was closely followed by the NHS and central government with 11.6 days.
In contrast, the lowest absence levels are found in consultancy (5.5 days per year), IT (5.6 days), media and publishing (6 days), telecommunications (7 days) and agriculture and forestry (7.1).
The report also uncovered wide regional variations, with Welsh employees taking an average 10.7 days sick a year, compared to Londoners with only 6.9 days - the best attendance rate in the country.
Although minor illnesses such as colds and flu remain the most important cause of sickness absence for all UK workers, the CIPD says that stress is a growing cause of absence with half of employers reporting an increase. It is the biggest cause of long-term absence for non-manual workers and the fourth biggest cause for manual staff.
Two-thirds of employers blamed excessive workloads as the main causes of stress-related absence, with six out of ten pointing the finger at bad management style, and more than four out of ten blaming organisational change and pressure to meet targets.
“A large part of managing stress is about good people management,” said Ben Willmott, the report's author.
“It is about providing employees with well-defined jobs roles, challenging but realistic targets and the support, training and recognition to help them achieve these targets. Although it is worrying to see stress-related absence on the increase it is encouraging that employers are taking action to address this.”
The survey shows that employers are taking action to try and manage absence more effectively, with three-quarters having made changes to the way they manage absence in the last two years. Strategies adopted include the greater involvement of line managers to combat short-term absence and increasing use of occupational health professionals to manage long-term absence as the most effective interventions.
Return to work interviews are seen as the most effective way of managing short-term absence (cited by more than six out of ten organisations) - almost double that of the next most effective method, disciplinary procedures.
Ben Willmott added that while it was encouraging to see personnel professionals working more closely with their line managers and outside professionals to address the main causes of absence, there was still a long way to go.
"UK organisations could do more to reduce absence levels by monitoring absence more closely. Only 46% of UK employers monitor its cost and just 49% of employers set targets for reducing absence," he said.