Few signs of improvement in public sector absence levels

Jul 17 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The amount of time British workers are taking off sick may be declining, but public sector absence rates remain stubbornly high and in some cases - are actually increasing.

The annual absence survey by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development found that the overall average level of absence have fallen to eight days per employee per year compared with 8.4 days for the previous 12 months.

The poll of more than 1,000 employers found that absence levels in the private sector averaged out at 7.5 days per employee per year, with manufacturing and production employers reporting eight days per employee per year (down from 8.4 days).

The average absence rate in the private services sector remained static at 6.8 days.

But absence rates in the public sector remained some 25 per cent higher than the private sector at almost 10 days per employee per year, a small fall on last year.

Absence rates in the public sector remained some 25 per cent higher than the private sector
Moreover, while the National Health Service saw a fall from 11.6 days to 10.4 days, the number of days missed by civil servants increased from 9.3 days to 10.5 days, while absence by council workers increased from 10.9 days to 11 days.

The survey also found that public sector employers are significantly less likely to discipline or dismiss employees because of absence from work.

Not-for-profit organisations recorded the biggest drop in annual absence levels, to 8.1 days per employee per year, down from 9.6 days for 2005.

The south-east of England (at 7.3 days) and London (at 6.8 days) recorded the lowest levels of absence per employee, while organisations in Wales and Northern Ireland had the highest (9.7 days).

But when it came to the cost, the average cost of sickness absence had remained almost static at 599 per employee, compared with last year's figure of 601.

The cost of absence, again, was highest in the public sector, at 680 per employee per year, said the CIPD.

The number of employers reporting an increase in stress related absence continued to increase, with 46 per cent reporting an increase.

But just under 70 per cent of those polled were taking steps to improve how they managed workplace stress.

Back pain climbed ahead of musculo-skeletal injury as the number one cause of long term absence for manual workers for the first time, while stress remained the number one cause of long-term absence for non manual employees, it added.

Minor illness was the biggest cause of short-term absence, according to 97 per cent of respondents, followed by stress for non-manual workers (56 per cent) and back pain for manual workers (62 per cent).

Just over a quarter of organisations had an employee well-being strategy or similar initiative to help improve the physical and mental health of their employees. And almost a third provided "stop smoking" support for employees.

Public sector organisations were significantly less likely than private sector organisations to refer to disciplinary procedures in absence management policies, the survey found.

They were also less likely to have required employees to attend disciplinary hearings in relation to absence in the past 12 months or have dismissed employees for absence.

They were more reluctant to restrict sick pay for unacceptable levels of absence or take account of employees' attendance records as part of their performance appraisals, said the CIPD.

Public sector organisations were more likely than private sector employers to refer to capability procedures in their absence management policies, manage a larger proportion of absence as health-related, believe a smaller proportion of absence was not genuine, it added.

Ben Willmott, CIPD employee relations adviser and report author, said: "Whilst it is encouraging that overall levels of employee absence and particularly public sector absence have fallen over the last year the gap between public and private sector absence remains stubbornly wide.

"Managing absence is a challenge for all employers. A balance has to be struck between providing support and rehabilitation and providing a robust absence management process which uses disciplinary procedures where necessary," he added.

"None the less, there does seem to be a cultural difference between how this issue is managed in the private and public sectors," he continued.

"The public services much more frequently address problem levels of employee absence as a matter of health and capability, while private sector organisations are proportionately more likely to manage absence as an issue of conduct through the disciplinary process.

"This contrast is perhaps an area that public sector organisations should consider when they are looking at ways of continuing to reduce high levels of employee absence in the public services," he concluded.

But TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said that the report was "peddling the tired old myth" about public sector absenteeism and claimed that the reason for the gap between the public and private sectors is that "the private sector traditionally under-reports time taken off sick by its employees".