Absence Series: Part 2. Public Sector versus Private Sector sickness levels

February 26, 2018

This is the second blog in the Absence Series, the last focused on the definition of absence, long term versus short term absence and the impact on the business. This one will look at the difference between public sector and private sector organisations in relation to sickness absence.

By Tim Frear

“On average public sector employees have over three days more absence each year than their private sector counterparts” CIPD Absence management survey report 2016.

When I look at the data on levels of sickness by sector, I try my best not to be cynical and judgemental. Having worked for both public and private sectors, I find it difficult not to link the culture of any company to their sickness absence level.

When working for a UK railway company I still remember getting a holiday form which requested one week holiday and one week sickness. When I questioned this, I was told by my HR Manager that railway staff can take several sickness days a year without HR questioning it. To this day that still puzzles me!

In my experience, private organisations have tighter trigger points. For example, most of our clients have three periods of sickness in a rolling 12 month period starting the disciplinary processes.

After reviewing a few Council and academic policies, most don’t stipulate periods of sickness and refer to ‘reasonable’. This level of short term absence can be extremely ambiguous and open to interpretation.

Trade unions must also take responsibility for public sector figures being higher than the private sector, as I find they are reluctant to allow changes to sickness policies. Robust policies would enable the public sector to better manage the short term absenteeism in the workforce.

“Absence may be more disruptive and noticeable in smaller organisations and sick pay schemes tend to be less generous”. CIPD Absence management survey report 2016.

What’s the benefit for a private sector employee being sick? In some cases, none, literally. The private sector is more commercially focused and usually pay minimal company sick pay (if any!) and opt for employees receiving SSP over company sick pay. This is in stark contrast to public sector and academic organisations which usually offer six months full pay and then six months at half pay. This must be considered when looking at the reasons the private sector have less sickness.

Larger private sector organisations have, on average, more days sickness absence than smaller private sector organisations. I would say this is due to the culture of a small organisation, where jobs are more fluid, and it’s more noticeable when sick leave is taken. This discourages absence and encourages a speedy return to work.

As public sector employers are usually large, if we took the recorded level of large private sector organisations and public sector, I would guess they would be more comparable.

It’s also important to note, the CIPD absence management survey also lay question to the data they receive for the report, with 95% of public sector collecting absence management data, compared to only 76% of private services collecting data, possibly giving a skewed result.

In the next blog will look at the reasons for absences and what we can do to try and overcome some of the common reasons for absences. Including how organisations can create a healthier culture.

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