The widely-held view that public sector workers take more sick leave than their private sector counterparts is misleading, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said.
Instead, there is evidence of higher rates of unrecorded absences within the private sector, which is dominated by smaller businesses.
Its study on absence, sickness and ill health, based on 10,000 staff interviews, found levels of absence were higher across the board in organisations with more than 250 staff.
As almost all public sector organisations employed more than 250 workers, while the majority of private sector staff worked in small or medium-sized organisations, the findings would inevitably be less favourable to the public sector.
When the size of an organisation and differences in the age and gender profiles were taken into account, the differences in public and private sector sickness absence rates were small – an average of approximately 0.3 days per employee.
The average number of days’ absence per employee in small private businesses was four days, compared with an average of seven days in large private sector organisations.
On average, women had more sickness absence than men, and the public sector employed a higher proportion of female staff.
Older staff took more days off, although young people had more spells of short-term absence. Nevertheless, the age profile of the public sector is older than the private sector, the study pointed out.
It also found that public sector employees were more likely to work while they are ill.
Reports of work-related stress were more prevalent among staff who work face to face with the public, and stress was more widely reported among public sector respondents – with more public sector staff engaging with the public than their private sector counterparts.
More than one-fifth of private sector staff said they received no pay for the first three days of continuous absence, said the HSE.