Britain's public sector faces a crackdown on sickness absence following the revelation that the absenteeism rate at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was more than 60 per cent higher than the private sector average.
Figures from the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that average absenteeism for the DWP was 12.6 days per person last year compared to just 7.8 days for the private sector.
When those who took no days off sick were excluded from the figures, the figure rose to 18.6 days.
More than 15,000 of the DWP's 142,000 staff took between one and six months off through illness, more than a third of whom claimed that this was due to stress, depression or anxiety. And 362 were off for the entire financial year to March 2004.
The figures represent a total of 1.72 million lost working days, costing the taxpayer a staggering £100m.
Under new measures announced by a government absenteeism task force, staff will have to phone their offices every day if they are off sick. Those who certify themselves as being ill for more than five days at a time will be challenged, while occupational health specialists will also be introduced to pick up early signs of problems.
Jane Kennedy, Minister for Work and chairwoman of the task force, admitted that more needed to be done to cut the rate of public sector sickness absence.
“Employers should take the health of their staff as seriously as their safety, taking professional advice from GPs when necessary," she said.
Cabinet Office minister, Ruth Kelly said: "Every modern organisation has a duty to take absence management seriously. A duty to its staff, who deserve to be treated fairly when off sick and helped to return to work when sensible to do so, and a duty to its shareholders, the taxpayer, to minimise unnecessary absence.
"The civil service is no exception here. Our recommendations constitute good modern management practice. We need to see them through and will ensure that there are processes to monitor departmental progress, and identify where further action is needed."
Public sector unions, meanwhile, blamed the high levels of absenteeism on stressful working conditions. Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union said:
"Far from being workshy, stress is a major factor of ill health in the civil service, a problem that is made worse with growing job insecurity as the Government seeks to cut over 100,000 civil and public service jobs."