Absenteeism: a public sector trait?

AnnieM, April 6, 2010

With the introduction of the ‘fit note’ this April (which replaces the sick note) there is widespread speculation about the amount of time employees are taking as sick. Yet, many are expressing concern that the ‘fit note’ will force genuinely unwell people back into work before they are ready and encourage a culture of ‘presenteeism’ already prevalent across the public and private sectors. ‘Presenteeism’ is the opposite of ‘absenteeism’ whereby an employee returns to work despite physical or mental illness. Returning to work before an employee is fully recovered can result in prolonged illness and decreased productivity.

The bad news

At present, there seems to be two schools of thought prevalent in the media.  The BBC Magazine reports a study carried out by the CIPD which reveals that public sector employees take 9.7 sick days per year, compared to the private sector average of 6.4 sick days per employee[1]. The Daily Mail cites NHS employees to take an average of 10.7 sick days per year and local government employees to take 13.5 sick days per year[2].

Yet according to Trades Union Congress, statistics from a study last month reveal the exact opposite. According to the March 2010 survey, 21% of public sector workers have worked through their illness rather than calling in sick. Compare this with 69% of private sector employees who take short-term absence due to minor ailments. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber believes that public sector workers are much more likely to go to work during illness when they should actually be at home[3].

With conflicting statistics such as these, it is difficult to ascertain the reality of the situation. One thing is certain: those not familiar with public sector culture can often misinterpret statistics, particularly around absence and sick leave, whereby there are often strict procedures in place to ensure that staff do not return to work until they are fully recovered. Presenteeism is not as prevalent in the public sector (although statistics indicate that it does still exist although not to the same extent), purely because those working in front line services such as the emergency services are more likely to make graver mistakes if they return to work before they are well.

The good news

At last, the long-awaited (and long-predicted) date of the general election has today been confirmed to take place on May 6th. The next few weeks in the lead up to the election will certainly be interesting, particularly for the public sector.

Perhaps in anticipation of this, Communities Secretary John Denham announced just days before confirmation of the election date that ten greater Manchester councils would together form the country’s first ever combined authority.  The councils: Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan will create a ‘City Region’ which will devolve power from Whitehall and cover issues such as housing, regeneration and transport. It is hoped that Greater Manchester residents will have a bigger say in local issues as the new authority will have much more power to initiate improvements and better services in the region.

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8594866.stm

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1261333/Drive-employee-absenteeism-giving-workers-free-cars.html

[3] http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/tuc-17790-f0.cfm