Why do public sector workers take more sickies?

Everybody knows that public sector workers are always taking sickies. The latest figures from the ONS prove it don’t they? Just look at this graph.

Told you so! Public sector sickness at 3.1 percent, private sector at 2.3 percent. What’s more, public sector sickness has been consistently higher since 2000.

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.

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15 Responses to Why do public sector workers take more sickies?

  1. Another great debunking.

    I’d add a couple of factors that may have some influence. You rightly point out the fact that many Public sector workers are working directly with children or potentially sick people. That means that when they have a cold they are supposed to stay away from work. Private sector office workers can pride themselves on working through a bad cold – sitting at their desk sipping Lemsip – but that isn’t what teachers nurses or carers are supposed to do in case they infect others.

    We should also bear in mind the influence of sick pay. The public sector is more likely to pay for a single day of sickness rather than take advantage of the SSP waiting days. They are generally less willing to sack sick people which probably results in a higher average figure coming from long term absence.

    All in all I’m surprise the public sector absence rate is as low as it is.

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  4. Annabel says:

    Is there any break out of the age/women figures? if they are taking time off to look after children they would be confined to a certain age range surely?

  5. Rick says:

    Good point about the long-term absence Darren. I’m not sure how much sickness this accounts for in the public sector but I know of cases where it has been allowed to go on unchallenged for far too long. It’s the same in disciplinaries. I have known of people being suspended for months while managers work out what to do. Both symptoms of the same problem!

    It would be interesting to see the difference between firms who don’t pay 1st day sick-pay and those that do. Would the latter be closer to public sector sickness rates?

  6. Rick says:

    Annabel – the stats the ONS published are not that sophisticated, though they probably do have the figures somehwere. It would, indeed, be interesting to see if women in the ‘child-rearing’ age range had more time off sick.

  7. Jamie Jenkins says:

    Some interesting thoughts here and some good points.

    There is a podcast explaining this story here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLbF9Ia75lo

    Also ONS published an age and gender breakdown in an article which is available here [Figure 3 on Page 2 of the PDF].

    Click to access ELMR_Nov08_Leaker.pdf

    It shows that while there is not much difference between the rates by age and gender, rates are highest for women aged 25 to 34.

  8. Vicki Foster says:

    You’ve made some really interesting points here. Having just written a blog about this myself, I thought I’d add my two sense worth!

    As well as being a journalist, I work part time at a care home, where the first three days of sickness are not paid. As a carer and as pointed out by Darren, you are not supposed to go into work if you are ill, but I’ve been guilty of working when I really shouldn’t have, but I needed the money!

    On one hand, carers/nurses etc should be paid for sick pay straight away, as it’s because of their occupation that they are staying away, but then if that was the case it would certainly be abused, as it is in the private sector. It’s a bit like going round in circles!

    Anyway, great blog!

  9. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    When I worked in Central Govt, for most of my career it was a simple matter of filling in a self-cert declaration chit and sending that over to Personnel. With a med cert if the ailment was over five days.

    Five years ago, Human Remains centralised all that process on a hideous HR IT system which took twenty minutes to access on a good day, then requiring line manager input too, so another ten minutes from them. I once tried to record five days as a hospital outpatient (attending a NHS diabetes management course to reduce the risk of severe complications and emergency admission) but the hideous HR computer said no, presumably assuming outpatients only visited hospitals on single days. So there may be significant under-reporting these days from inadequate IT, and staff and middle management who have more urgent work to do than faff around with precise record keeping, when it’s tacitly accepted that there are no actual absence issues to manage.

    On the other hand, stats can skew the other way – I do seem to recall that any one day absence on a Friday or Monday actually counted as three days.

    The issue is identifying excessive levels of discretionary absence, ie, discounting the broken limbs and suchlike. I saw stats showing marked percentage differences in similar teams at the same location, and that seemed to correlate with how management style impacted on the commitment of the staff.

    There is also a well known marked difference in absence by grade, also predominantly female at lower levels. The Whitehall I and II occupational health studies of the CS studied life expectancy across a deeply stratified population group working in similar office conditions, and found that grade was a very strong predictor of health and longevity. After all, stress is strongly influenced by lack of control and options, and provokes poor health.

    Since I left, the CS has clearly become a far more aggressive and ungrateful employer, judging by what passes for leadership from the remote ministers. They may not be aware, or even care that trashing psychological contracts will have marked real-world effects, as JCBA* is highly infectious.

    * Just Can’t Be A**ed.

  10. James says:

    2/3 of public sector is female, as in order for the government to show impressive employment rate, public sector has become more bloated and filled with red tape over the years so people who were unemployable can wear a suit and have a job at the expense of those who work much harder under tighter working conditions, with evidently less pay, and it is these people who are the bedrock of the economy and society, and on top of that, they are actually worth being paid by private companies. It’s no wonder why public sector workers are worried about losing their jobs, because many know that they are simply worthless in the real world, around 4-5/7 public sector workers are not skilled and are often poorly educated, the only skills many of them have gained are filling in pointless forms, and learning tricks on how to milk system – another reason why the private sector will never want them.

    • Rick says:

      Yeah, yeah yeah. Come back when you’ve got some evidence to back this up.

      • James says:

        There are around 6 million public sector workers in the country, and only just above 2 million of them are police, teachers, prison guards, doctors, nurses, fire fighters, and tax officials (Office for National Statistics). This begs the question, what does the remaining just shy of 4 million do? And more importantly are they really needed to provide front line public service, although the private sector puts profit first, they operate more efficiency because of incentive, the government needs to strategically increase the role of the private sector in the state, in order to provide a far more efficient service, of course with heavy regulation.

  11. Pingback: What are Public ‘Services’ « Dr Ian C Elliott

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