The gulf between sickness absence rates in the public sector and the private sector widened to record level in 2007, a major CBI/AXA report has revealed.
The annual absence survey showed that average absence levels across the public sector stood at nine days – 55% higher than the 5.8 day average of the private sector. Private firms improved their absence levels during 2007 marginally, while the public sector stood still.
The report estimated that £1.4bn of taxpayers’ money could be saved if public sector organisations matched the private sector average.
Overall, the survey of 503 employers found that absence from work cost the UK economy £13.2bn last year, as the average employee took 6.7 days off sick.
The survey also revealed that of the 172 million days lost to absence in 2007, more than one in 10 (12%) are thought to be non-genuine. These 21 million “sickies” cost the economy £1.6bn and two-thirds (65%) of employers think that some staff are using them to extend weekends.
Long-term absence (20 days or more) also continued to be a serious concern for firms. Although only 5% of absence spells became long term, they accounted for a massive 40% of all time lost, costing £5.3bn.
Susan Anderson, CBI director of HR policy, said: “Everyone agrees that sick people need time off work. But employers face two serious and expensive challenges – dealing with bogus sick days, and helping those with long-term illness return to work when they are fit to do so.
“People who awarded themselves sickies to enjoy the recent sunny weather or to extend a weekend away are acting unfairly, leaving their colleagues to pick up their work, and costing taxpayers and employers more than £1bn a year.
“But we really have to question if there is a medical explanation for the higher levels of long-term absence in the public sector. Low morale, poor management and a culture of absence are at least partly to blame.”
In 2007 the average direct cost of absence was £517 per employee – which includes lost production and the expense of covering absence with temporary staff or overtime. The CBI also estimated that indirect costs, such as lower customer satisfaction, added another £263 per employee per year.
More than two-thirds of employers wanted the government to prioritise the introduction of ‘fit notes’, that would help employers understand what duties an individual could perform, and help them make arrangements for a return to work.