The TUC has accused the CBI of “anti-public sector bias”.
The CBI absence survey claimed public sector absence has “persistently” been higher than in the private sector, with public sector workers taking around 68 million days off sick in 2004 at a cost of £4.1bn.
The gap between public and private was 2.7 days, up from two days in 2003.
Reducing absence to private sector levels would see absence going down by 20.1 million days, saving about £1.2bn, the CBI estimated.
While the public sector represented just 30% of the UK workforce, it accounted for 40% of the total number of working days lost to absence.
Absence at the Department for Work and Pensions was more than three times higher than the best performing companies in the private sector.
TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, said suggestions that public sector workers were “too ready to throw a sickie” and take a few days off whenever they felt like it was insulting and plain wrong.
“More serious analysis shows the exact opposite. Public sector workers are less likely to take short periods off work ill than their colleagues in the private sector,” he said.
“If we look at absences of five days or less, the average private sector worker takes 5.5 days off sick, while public sector workers take 4.9 days.”
The average figure was higher only because more public sector workers took long-term sick leave, much of which was caused by injuries on duty, he argued.
Susan Anderson, CBI HR policy director, insisted its figures had taken account of this, and that most of the public sector organisations polled had been those where most of the workers were office based.