Headlines: July 10th, 2006

The commonly-held view that public sector workers take more time off sick than their counterparts in private firms is misleading according to a new report from the Health and Safety Executive. An HSE survey has found evidence of higher numbers of employers under-recording absence among their staff in the private sector, particularly in smaller businesses.The Survey on Workplace Absence, Sickness and (ill) Health 2005 shows the difference between sickness rates across the public – private sector divide is small. Taking into account the size of an organisation and differences in the age and gender profiles, the difference is approximately 0.3 days per employee. The survey is based on interviews with 10,000 employees. It confirmed that absence levels were higher in organisations with more than 250 staff, which includes almost all public sector organisations. The majority of private sector workers, meanwhile, are in small or medium sized organisations.

The figures show that the average number of days absence per employee in small private businesses is 4 days, compared with 7 days in larger companies. Women have more sickness absence, on average, than men and the public sector employs a higher proportion of women. Older employees also take more days off sick in total than their younger co-workers but young people have more spells of short-term absence than older staff. Again, the age profile of the public sector is older than that in private business.Public sector workers, the survey found, are more likely to work when they are ill and reports of work-related stress are more prevalent in people working face to face with the public. There were more reports of stress among the public sector interviewees than from their counterparts, partly accounted for because more public sector workers are in contact with the public.

The survey did find notable differences in sick pay arrangements. More than a fifth of respondents employed in the private sector said they received no pay for the first three days of continuous absence.