But wait a minute. Here’s something else interesting. Women have a higher sickness rate than men – 2.9 percent as against 2.1 percent.
And guess what? The public sector workforce is two-thirds female. The male sickness rates in the public and private sectors are almost the same – 2.0 percent and 2.1 percent. When it comes to taking sick days, gender, it seems, is as important a factor as which sector a person works in. Much of the higher public sector sickness rate is due to its female workers.
Why should this be? The traditional explanation, as the Telegraph article linked above says, is that women take sick days when their children are ill. I’ve never seen any data on this (and I’m not sure how easy it would be to research) but it might explain some of the difference. However, the sort of work that women do may also influence their higher absence rates.
The data show that sickness is highest in ‘personal service occupations’ and ‘sales and customer service occupations’ – both at 3.6 percent. This is not surprising. Minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds, were the largest single cause of absence. The more people you deal with on a day-to-day basis, the more likely you are to catch a cold. And, of course, personal and customer service occupations are disproportionately female, so the higher absence figure for female workers shouldn’t be that much of a surprise either.
Because of the nature of their work, frontline public sector staff spend more time than their private sector counterparts dealing with people who are ill. The women working in the public sector are disproportionately concentrated in these personal and customer service occupations. (I don’t have any data for this but I’m pretty sure it’s true.) Think about the people you are most likely to meet at a hospital, council office or job centre. The face of the public sector is overwhelmingly female. The men are in management meetings or on the occasional ward round. On the whole, it is women who interact with the masses and breathe in their germs. This goes some way to explaining both the higher absence levels for women and for pubic sector workers.
But the most interesting thing about these figures isn’t the difference between sectors, genders and professions at all. The difference between sickness rates over time is far greater, ranging from 3.4 percent in the early 2000s to 2.1 percent in 2009. There was a sharp fall during the depths of the recession, as you might expect, but the trend over the past decade has been downwards. According to these figures, a buoyant economy didn’t lead to an explosion in sickies.
Could this be because employers are getting better at managing sickness? Excessive absence is, for the most part, a performance management issue. The data seem to indicate that there is, for many people, an element of choice in whether or not to take a sick day. Sickness absence fell during the recession which suggests that people who might normally have taken a sick day chose not to when they knew their employers were planning to cut heads.
In general, performance management in the public bodies has some way to go. The CIPD was scathing about public sector absence and performance management in its report last year. But the trend in public sector absence is downwards too, so perhaps some managers have been doing something right after all.
When you scratch beneath the surface, then, sickness absence is more complex than the headline figures suggest. The data certainly don’t support the traditional image of a public sector stuffed full of shirkers and skivers. None of this is to say that public sector managers don’t need to work harder to manage absence and performance; many of them clearly do. But much of the difference may be because public sector workers are concentrated in jobs where catching coughs, colds and stomach bugs is an occupational hazard. The differences between public and private sector sickness are not as great as those with a political axe to grind would have us believe.