Row over ‘sickies’ erupts as UK loses 12bn in absence costs

A major row has broken out over the interpretation of new figures that highlight the spiralling cost of absenteeism and the large number of staff believed to be taking ‘sickies’.

New figures show that although the total number of days lost to sickness absence has fallen by 4.5% to 168 million, the overall cost has grown from £11.6bn in 2003 to £12.2bn last year.

Research by the CBI and Axa blamed £1.7bn worth of the total cost of employee absence in 2004 on sickies, with 14% of all absence believed to be non-genuine sick days.

The survey of 500 organisations reveals employees were each off work for an average of 6.8 days last year, but many businesses expressed concerns about unwarranted sick days and extended weekends.

Three-quarters of those polled feared staff were extending weekends by calling in sick on Friday or Monday, while two-thirds reported an increase in sickness around bank holidays.

According to the study, public sector absence outstrips that in the private sector by almost three days for every employee, and the CBI said this was drag-ging up the overall level, costing the taxpayer more than £1.2bn.

However, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber hit back by questioning the way the numbers had been presented.

He said public sector staff actually took less short-term sick leave than workers at private firms, and the overall figure was only higher because of the greater risk of injury.

“The figure is only higher because more public sector workers take long-term sick leave, much of which is caused by injuries on duty. This is
not surprising given the dangerous and stressful nature of policing, nursing and firefighting,” he said.

“Workers in Britain are not malingerers. They are less likely to take short-term sick leave than workers in any other European country – apart from Denmark,” he added.

A separate poll by law firm Peninsula found that 79% of employers had experienced an increase in absenteeism in the last 12 months – a steady rise over the past five years.

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