Public sector workers take more time off, survey reveals

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The Independent Online

Public sector workers take three more sick days a year on average than those in the private sector – and are increasingly blaming stress for their absences, a study shows.

The average time taken off work in the public sector because of sickness is 9.6 days per employee per year, compared with 6.6 days in private sector services, according to the annual absence survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

The figures also show that 73 per cent of manual and 79 per cent of non-manual public sector workers rate stress as one of the top five causes of absence, compared with an average of 51 per cent and 63 per cent across all sectors, including manufacturing and non-profit organisations.

More than half of public sector respondents rated organisational change or restructuring as one of the top three causes of work-related stress. By contrast, the average across all sectors was 39 per cent. The median cost of public sector absences is £889 per employee a year compared with a median across all sectors of £600 per employee annually.

The findings, issued five days after the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, highlighted the importance of boosting productivity while spelling out massive cuts in public spending and large job losses.

Dr Jill Miller, an adviser to the CIPD, said stress levels would inevitably increase further in the public sector as a result of the spending review.

"The survey shows why closing the gap between public and private sector absence has proved so difficult for successive governments. Compared to the private sector, more public sector employees are in challenging public-facing roles such as social work, policing, teaching and nursing where they often have to deal with people in difficult and emotionally charged situations, putting pressure on their time and resilience."

Others are less sympathetic to higher levels of sick leave among public sector workers. Last month, the chief fire officer of Merseyside, Tony McGuirk, accused many employees in the public sector of being "bone idle". To get people in to work, he advocated a tough stance on absence and incentives such as a draw to win a car for those who took no sick leave. Mr McGuirk faced calls to resign and later apologised for his comments.

Across all sectors, the recession and subsequent recovery took their toll on absence, the CIPD said. More than one-third of employers said they had seen an increase in reported mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. In last year's survey only one-fifth noted an increase.

This year's survey found that only 20 per cent of employers had strengthened measures for employee wellbeing and health promotion as a result of the recession. The public sector is the most active in taking steps to reduce higher levels of stress through measures such as staff surveys, flexible working, stress-management training and stress risk assessments.