The latest annual CBI / AXA Absence Survey, published today, reveals that absence levels were 30% higher across public sector organisations than in the private sector. The average private sector worker was off sick for six days last year; the average public sector worker was absent for 8.5 days.
If the public sector reduced its absence to average private sector levels, £1.1 billion of taxpayers' money would be saved – or enough to pay for nearly 60,000 extra nurses a year, the CBI claims.
The total number of days lost through absence across the UK economy fell in 2005 by 4 million to 164 million days, the lowest level since the survey began in 1987.
The survey suggests that a ‘culture of absenteeism’ still exists in too many workplaces. As many as 13% of days lost to sickness in 2005 were considered non-genuine by employers – in other words staff 'pulling sickies' – at a cost to the economy of £1.2bn.
Nearly three quarters (73%) of employers believed that unauthorised absence could be linked to Mondays and Fridays and almost two-thirds (64%) thought staff may be taking unauthorised extensions to holidays. Forty percent considered special events, like the forthcoming World Cup, were a likely cause of unwarranted absence.
The cost of absence, which includes covering salaries of absent staff, paying overtime and providing temporary cover, rose to £531 per employee in 2005 compared with £495 in last year’s survey.
CBI Deputy Director-General John Cridland said: "The huge cost of absence to the economy shows why so many CEOs declare that their people are their most important asset. Hard work by companies to manage absence is clearly paying off, with overall absence coming down. But so much more can still be done."
He said that employers recognise that the majority of absence is due to genuine, minor illnesses. "Nobody wants staff to drag themselves into work when they are genuinely ill," he said. "But there is clearly concern that a culture of absenteeism still exists in some workplaces and this must change."
World Cup sickies
As excitement builds for this summer's World Cup, Cridland acknowledged that many employers will be worried about staff taking sickies. "We all want the England team to do well in the World Cup but many employers make arrangements for staff to catch the big matches in the workplace," he said.
The CBI survey consistently finds that organisations which recognise trade unions have higher rates of absence – 7.6 as opposed to 5.5 days. This is particularly true for the public sector and is irrespective of size: all but the very smallest unionised organisations have higher rates.
But recognising a union need not automatically be a barrier to reducing absence, says the CBI. Manufacturers that recognise unions have only 0.6 days higher absence than those that do not whereas organisations in the public sector with union recognition have absence 2.9 days higher than those without.
Cridland continued: "Absence is best managed with both carrot and stick – schemes that reward the good attendees work best together with those that deter the worst offenders. In its drive to reform welfare and encourage more people on incapacity benefit back to work, the Government must not deny employers the opportunity to wait a couple of days before paying sick pay. Denying them this could increase short-term absence and add far more to employers’ costs than it would save in administration."
“What businesses need to help with those on long-term absence is continued reform of the health service to ensure effective, timely treatment with better co-operation and support from GPs,” he added
A third of overall time lost is attributable to longer periods of absence – over 20 days - and costs £4.8bn. But long-term absence is more of a problem in the public sector, where just 6% of absentees accounted for over half of total time lost. Rehabilitation services, which include flexible working, counselling, training and treatment, are now offered by 84% of organisations – up 24% on the previous year.
TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said the survey "smashes the myth that Britain is a nation of shirkers."
He pointed out that public sector workers have less short term but more long term absence rates than the private sector. Public sector workers report long term sickness more for two reasons, according to the TUC: first, many companies don't allow long term sick leave – you get the sack; second, some public sector workers are more likely to be attacked or suffer stress because of their jobs.
"Only lazy employers think that the solution to excess sick leave is to emphasise the stick," said Barber. "The best way is to work with staff with effective risk assessments, flexible working and positive sickness management programmes.
He also pointed out that most of next month's World Cup games are in the evening. "Despite CBI concerns, few employees are likely to throw football induced 'sickies'," he said. "Sensible employers will be allowing their employees who are in work the flexibility to organise their work around games or will be installing temporary screens in the office. Trusting staff and treating them like grown ups is the best way to help reduce absenteeism at work."