Public sector absenteeism is a sick joke

2005

The billions of pounds of taxpayer's money pouring into Britain's public sector has had no effect at all on its absenteeism levels, as new figures reveal that sickness rates have continued to rise.

The annual absence survey by the CBI has once again highlighted once again the growing gap between public and private sector absence.

The latest figures show public sector employees taking an average of three days more sick leave than their private sector counterparts.

Absence in 2004 averaged 9.1 days per public sector employee against 6.4 days per private sector worker.

The difference of 2.7 days marks an increase of more than a third on the already worrying two-day gap exposed in last year's findings, putting the government's avowed target of cutting sick leave by 30 per cent from its 1998 level in sharp perspective.

Public sector absence cost the UK economy £4.1bn in 2004

The survey of more than 500 organisations also showed that public sector absence cost the UK economy £4.1bn in 2004 –the equivalent of an extra 1p on income tax.

That figure also matches exactly the amount gained by the Government over the last financial year through the employer National Insurance hike announced in the 2002 Budget, the CBI said.

According to CBI director general Sir Digby Jones, the problem is so severe it is undermining front-line services and damaging Britain's competitiveness.

If the public sector even managed to reduce its absence rate to the private sector average, absence would fall by over 20 million days and save the UK taxpayer £1.2bn annually.

That would be enough to pay for the salaries of around 37,000 new teachers, said the confederation.

The CBI findings also reveal that though the public sector represents only 30 per cent of the UK workforce, it accounts for 40 per cent of the total number of working days lost to absence.

Absence in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), one of the worst performing areas of the public sector in 2004, was over three times higher than the best performing companies of the private sector.

The DWP – the largest government department – averaged 12.6 days lost to absence in 2004. When those who took no days off sick were excluded from the figures, this figure rises to 18.6 days.

In a report last year, the DWP identified a tendency towards a "Friday to Monday problem" in which its staff take long weekends off, claiming they are ill.

In contrast, legal and consulting firms in the private sector averaged just four days lost to absence per employee in 2004.

Sir Digby Jones said: "These findings will make worrying reading for the newly-elected government. If ministers fail to deal with this problem, poorer front-line services or higher taxes will be the result.

"This growing problem is undermining promised public sector efficiency gains. It is particularly depressing that the Department for Work and Pensions, which should be setting the example within government, is one of the worst performers," he added.

"For the UK economy to succeed, both the private and the public sector must pull their full weight," he continued.

"The private sector has no option in a world where global competitiveness is all. It is high time the public sector delivered for the taxpayer on the same basis."

A major factor contributing to higher public sector absence was long-term absence, said the survey.

The survey – conducted every year since 1987 – showed that the public sector was not dealing with long-term absence as well as the private sector.

Long-term absence – or that lasting 20 days or longer – accounted for just seven per cent of public sector cases in 2004, but was responsible for a disproportionate 57 per cent of total public sector absence.

This is a significantly higher proportion than the private sector where five per cent of last year's cases were long-term, accounting for 33 per cent of total private sector absence.

Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at insurer AXA, which co-authored the survey, said: "There are some serious people management issues here. A healthy dose of inspirational leadership would be a start and, by creating a more positive environment, would certainly help to cut short term absence.

"And it's unforgivable that long-term spells account for over half of the public sector's lost working time when we know that early intervention and rehabilitation can have such a positive effect.

"Public sector employers that provide medical care for their people cut their levels of absence by over two days per employee," he added.

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