The gap between the number of sick days taken in the private sector in the UK versus the public sector has reached its widest in four years, new figures have suggested.
The poll of 1,000 firms by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found average absence levels in the public sector stood at 10.3 days per employee per year, compared to 6.8 days in private services sector.
Stress is one of the leading – and growing – causes of absence in the public sector, with around a half of public sector organisations citing stress as a leading cause of long-term absence for non-manual workers, it added.
More than four out of ten public sector organisations said their stress levels had increased during the past year. Absence levels were highest in local government and the health sector.
Ben Willmott, CIPD employee relations adviser, said: "There are a high proportion of particularly challenging public facing roles in the public sector such as police, healthcare, teaching, and social services which contribute to higher than average levels of absence.
"Research shows that change is one of the biggest causes of stress and there has been a tremendous amount of change in the public sector with employees working within increasingly target-driven and performance managed environments.
"Employers must consult with staff before making changes and involve them as much as possible in order to help gain their trust and commitment," he added.
But it's not all bad news. Overall absence levels fell to 8.4 days per employee a year, down from 9.1 days for the previous 12 months.
This was the lowest level of absence recorded by the CIPD since it began surveying absence levels in 2000.
The average level of sickness absence in the manufacturing and production sector was 8.4 days per employee per year, down from 9.2 days for the previous 12 months.
Annual sickness absence costs increased by 2.2 per cent, although this increase was lower than the previous 12 months when absence costs increased by 3.7 per cent year-on-year.
The cost of absence was highest in the public sector at £645 per employee each year, rising to £1,060 within the health sector.
There were also sharp differences in how public and private sector firms managed absence.
Public sector organisations were least likely to use disciplinary procedures to manage unacceptable levels of absence, and also least likely to restrict sick pay.
They provided occupational sick pay for the longest out of all the main sectors and were least likely to believe absence was not genuine.
Just a quarter took into account attendance records as part of performance measures for individuals' appraisals compared to almost half of private sector service organisations.
But 40 per cent also believed that including employees' attendance records among performance measures for individuals' appraisals has a positive effect on reducing absence levels, with just 12 per cent saying this had no effect.
Return-to-work interviews were seen as the most effective way of managing short-term absence, followed by disciplinary procedures for unacceptable absence and providing sickness absence information to line managers.