Why is public sector sickness absence worse than the private sector?

Official government data, published last week, showed that staff sickness in the civil service cost the taxpayer £400m in 2004 with an average of 9.1 working days lost per member of staff, compared with 10 in 2003.

Across Whitehall, the Cabinet Office was the best-performing department with just 3.6 working days lost while Revenue & Customs had the worst record for staff sickness absence, with 12 days lost.

“There are still pockets in the civil service where absence levels are too high,” said Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), who says public sector absence levels compare unfavourably with the private sector, calculated to stand at 6.7 days lost, according to the CIPD.

At the Health and Safety Executive, Mark Dempsey has been studying the issue for more than a year.

He is secretary to a ministerial taskforce into health, safety and productivity headed by Lord Hunt at the Department for Work and Pensions, and involving representatives from a wide range of public sector organisations including the Treasury and the NHS.

The taskforce has identified some key areas where absenteeism in the public sector can be tackled.

Dempsey believes to effectively confront the problem of absenteeism, it is vital there is commitment from top-level managers. Unless this is achieved, nothing serious can ever be done about absenteeism levels that may, in part, be the result of an entrenched workplace culture.

Instilling good management practice throughout government departments is also vital in reducing absence levels. A good manager, said Dempsey, will create an atmosphere where staff are less likely to want to stay away.

“They should motivate staff, make them feel valued, support people when they are off and be able to approach difficult conversations in the right way,” he said.

There is also a need, according to Dempsey, for government departments to have better systems in place to collect and measure absence data, so that patterns of behaviour and problems with both individuals and managers can be identified as early as possible.

This point is picked up by Sarah Brown, a senior associate at Mercer HR Consulting’s health and benefits unit, who says studies of long-term absence situations show staff start to lose engagement with organisations after having been off work for three weeks.

This means organisations must intervene as early as possible to offer support and advice to absent staff, she said. These interventions are especially important when employees are absent because of musculoskeletal disorders and stress, complaints that tend to reoccur, said Brown.

She advises in these cases that staff are put in contact with occupational health functions at an early stage.

“By acting early, long-term absenteeism can be lessened, as can the expense and emotional impact related to the problem,” she said.

In this instance, public sector organisations can learn from the private sector, said Willmott, who cites the Royal Mail as an example.

The organisation’s well-publicised success in cutting absence levels was attributed to a number of initiatives including reducing the time before absent staff were referred to occupational health from three weeks to two while stress and muscular injuries are now referred on day one.

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