Sick leave drops 8%, but public/private gulf grows

Sickness absence dropped by 8% over the last twelve months but the gulf between public and private sector sickness absence is now bigger than ever.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) annual Absence management: a survey of policy and practice revealed an overall absence rate of 8.4 days per worker, down from 9.1 days in 2004. This is the lowest recorded level since the CIPD’s absence surveys began in 2000. Across both sectors the average cost of sickness absence has increased from £588 to £601.

The survey, which canvassed the thoughts of over 1,000 organisations in the UK, found that the average absence level in the public sector was 10.3 days per year, in contrast to 6.8 days in the private sector.

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, suggests difficult public-facing jobs such as policing, teaching, social services and healthcare in the public sector contributed to the higher rate of absence.

But the study also revealed that public sector employers are the least likely to restrict sick pay and impose disciplinary procedures on employees with unacceptable levels of absence.

Of measures taken by employers to manage absence, occupational health involvement is seen as the most effective intervention in long-term absence, while return-to-work interviews, which are used by 59% of organisations, are regarded as the best way to manage short-term absence. Some 44% of employers have a target for reducing absence.

Stress is reported as the leading cause of long-term sickness absence, with 39% of all organisations recording an increase in stress levels over the last 12 months. Perhaps unsurprisingly, musculo-skeletal injuries are the main cause of long-term absence among manual workers.

Workers in the North West recorded the most absence, at 10 days per year, while staff in Northern Ireland have the best attendance records with just 4.6 days taken sick.

Sickness absence rates improved most in Wales and Northern Ireland, dropping from 10.7 days to 8.7 days and 7.7 days to 4.6 days respectively. The highest absence rates were found in the health sector (11.6 days) while the professional services and telecoms sectors (5.5 days) and IT services (5 days) had the lowest.

Just 18% of bosses use attendance bonuses to help manage short term absence, while 12% use them for long term absence. Employers believe 14% of absence is not genuine.