Drop in sick leave at private sector firms

Employees working for private firms are taking less time off sick, a new report has revealed.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found in its annual absence management survey, which covers responses from 600 companies, that staff in the private sector were off sick for an average of 6.4 days last year, down from the 7.2 days recorded in the year before.

However, absence rates in the public sector workforce dropped barely at all, from 9.8 to 9.7 days.

This means that the average sick leave for private sector workers was one complete day below that of the national average which stood at 7.4 days, down from 8 days in the preceding year.

The CIPD estimated that total workplace absence – 185 million working days – cost the UK economy some £17.3 billion.

One reason for the decline in sick leave levels among private firms is that many employers are policing absence trends with much greater scrutiny during the economic downturn.

Some 40 per cent of private businesses said that they had concentrated more resources on reducing absence levels and the accompanying costs in direct response to the recession.

Worries among employees over job security may be another contributing factor. More than half of respondents (56 per cent) reported that they had made workers redundant in the past 12 months, with 40 per cent saying that they take attendance records into account when assessing redundancies.

Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the CIPD, said: “It appears that the recession has contributed to a fall in the overall level of employee absence, with private sector absence levels at the lowest levels ever recorded by the CIPD absence management survey.”

But he added that is disappointing that public sector absence levels remain so high.

Mr Willmott continued: “There is no simple explanation for the public/private absence gap, with a number of factors in play including differences in demographic profiles with a higher proportion of women and older workers in the public sector. The public sector also has a high proportion of challenging public-facing roles such as those involved in policing, nursing, teaching and social care.

“However, there is also a fundamental difference in management culture and practice between the sectors. The public sector is more likely to provide leave for family circumstances, provide access to occupational health services, counselling services and physiotherapy. But they are less likely than their private sector counterparts to discipline or dismiss employees for absence-related reasons.”

He argued that effective absence management involves finding a balance between providing support to help employees with health problems stay in and return to work, and taking consistent and firm action against employees who try to take advantage of organisations’ occupational sick pay schemes.

The CIPD survey found that the main causes of short-term absence are minor illnesses such as colds and flu and stress, while for long-term absence the principal reasons are acute medical conditions, stress and mental health conditions and musculoskeletal conditions.

One in five employers reported an increase in the proportion of people coming to work ill in the last 12 months, and the same proportion believed that employee concerns over job security have had an impact on absence levels.