Since the coalition government was elected in 2010 the UK public sector has become a political battleground. For some, it is complacent and bloated, with a culture of entitlement, gold-plated pensions with generous early retirement options, automatic pay rises based on “sitting tight” in your job and levels of job security which contrast with the precariousness of the “real world”. For others, especially in the last five years, the public sector has been under siege, with over 450,000 jobs cut since 2010 and up to 400,000 more forecast by 2020. It has been hit by pay freezes, reduced pension benefits, increased workloads and deflated morale.
Either way, the government seems intent on keeping up the pressure. In the 2015 autumn spending review, Chancellor George Osborne announced a review of sickness absence and sick pay in the public sector. This was met with almost no critical commentary, aside from the usual, unflattering comparisons with sickness rates in the private sector. But is sickness absence among public servants really that bad? And are the stereotypes of “malingering pen-pushers” based on fact?
Differences can be explained
It’s true that most surveys do show that levels of sick leave have been higher in the public sector, although the gap is narrowing. The latest data reveals an average of 7.9 days lost each year among public sector workers compared with 5.5 days in the private sector. But I think three significant factors might explain some of the disparity.
The first is demographics. The public sector employs a large number of women in poorly paid jobs, with poorer than average general health. Many are susceptible to short-term childcare and eldercare problems and they are more dependent on public transport than the average person. Despite employment rights allowing unpaid family and emergency leave, the low paid find it more difficult to take time off to deal with domestic crises. For many, sick leave is the only option.
The second is elevated occupational “risk”. Compared with the private sector, public sector workers are at higher risk of illness or injury through their work. Levels of back injury, needlestick injury, cross-infection from patients, and physical and verbal abuse are significantly higher among NHS workers than for other workers. Occupational risks among police officers, firefighters and prison officers also inflate the public sector absence figures. Workers in health and social care, for example, are twice as likely to suffer from stress and depression. This has increased the number of days lost through long-term illness. It should also be remembered that 53% of public sector workers take no sickness absence at all, a slightly lower number than in the private sector.
The third is better recording. Chancellors since Gordon Brown in the late 1990s have all targeted public sector absence because it is politically popular. Bureaucrats can, at the very least, be relied upon to keep good records, and a more realistic picture of the actual level of absence in the public sector reinforces the contrast with the private sector, where recorded levels appear lower mostly because the standard of absence recording is notoriously haphazard, especially among smaller firms. Over 90% of public sector employers keep comprehensive absence records compared with fewer than 75% in the private sector.
These factors might be regarded by some as a reasonable argument against the stereotype of the “malingering bureaucrat”. However, one important and rarely quoted survey suggests that we may be comparing apples and oranges. Carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the survey of workplace sickness, absence and ill health (SWASH) is a survey of over 10,000 UK employees which seeks to understand the influences on workplace absence rates. Standardising the sample by age, gender and size of organisation reveals that differences between private and public sector absence rates are very modest, with public sector employees taking an average of just 0.3 days a year more than their private sector counterparts.
I’m not expecting this finding to weaken the resolve of the Chancellor to crack down on “malingering”. Crucially, the HM Treasury review will also be examining sick pay arrangements to see whether they encourage sick leave. This may look like a soft target given the clearly more generous provisions in the public sector. But does more generous sick pay really cause malingering? A quick look at privatised businesses such as BT shows that, despite having comparably generous sick pay schemes, their absence rates are much lower than the public sector, suggesting that the nature of the work, the way people are managed and the access to early support for ill or injured employees may be better.
The review could come up with constructive ideas for reform and improvement, but my fear is that, in the process, it may add to a pervasive feeling among public sector workers that the government distrusts them deeply, and a perverse consequence of low morale is, of course, higher absence.