Myth-Busting Misreporting on Public Sector Sickness Absence

Corporate pundits in the mainstream media and within the Government continue to misrepresent workplace statistics to erode the superior terms and conditions that have been won by unionised public sector workers.

One topic that has been the perennial focus of much misinformation revolves around the so-called sickie culture that apparently plagues the public sector – although, that said, in recent years even the Daily Mail has partially retreated from pushing this lie.

Blairite-run Labour Councils have however evidently internalised such divisive anti-worker propaganda, and attempt to carry through Tory funding cuts by replacing decent, fairly negotiated sickness policies, with the bare minimum required by the law. Such actions continue to be met with resistance and threats of industrial action by trade unions.


One particularly useful report that was produced by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 2010 should be mandatory reading for all pro-austerity Labour councillors (i.e., those actively opposing Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist leadership of the Labour Party).

The report is a must-read because it smashes the myth that public servants are always on the lookout for an excuse to pull a ‘sickie’ and effectively questioned Government claims that there are easy savings to be had from cracking down on absence in the public sector. As the TUC noted:

“Public sector workers are more likely than private sector colleagues to work when too ill to do so and less likely than private sector staff to take a ‘sickie’ – a short period off sick – according to a new TUC report The Truth About Sickness Absence.

“While public sector workers take longer periods off work on absence, many work in stressful and dangerous public sector jobs that can cause injury. Private sector workers are much more likely to work for employers who are quick to sack people with genuine health problems rather than help them return to work.”

The report determined that a further 41 per cent of public sector workers (compared to 36 per cent amongst private sector workers) have gone into work poorly when they should have stayed off sick within the last year. Furthermore many public sector workers still struggle in to work when they are far too ill to do so – and one in five of the respondents to the TUC’s survey (20 per cent) had done so within the last month alone.

The report also concluded that public sector workers are more likely than private sector workers to come in to work when they are unwell because they don’t want to let their colleagues – or the public who rely on them – down by not coming in.

Although the TUC report determined that public sector workers were less likely to call in sick for short periods of illness than those employed in the private sector, public sector worker did report long-term sickness more often. It was suggested that this could be explained firstly because the private sector usually has much worse sick pay arrangements for staff, and therefore private sector employers are more likely to dismiss those workers on long-term leave. And secondly, the report argued that many public sector workers are in industries where you would expect to find higher long-term sick levels, such as health and social care services, where back injury, stress and violence are far more common.

A few years prior to the TUC report, in May 2007, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) published another important discussion paper titled Health, Work and Well-being: Rising to the Public Sector Attendance Management Challenge. This paper drew the firm conclusions that there was no need for sickness absence to be dealt with differently in the public and private sectors. Acas drew particular attention to evidence from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to illustrate that private sectors figures are not necessarily reliable or comparable to public sector data. The Acas paper noted:

“[T]here is evidence that employers in the private sector under-record absence, particularly in small firms, the HSE survey claims. The headline difference in days lost to absence between the public and private sector (7.8 and 5.7 days a year per employee respectively) is halved if workforce size is taken into account, and almost disappears completely if other workforce factors such as age and gender are included.

“The survey indicates that workforce size does explain part of the variation in absence, arguing that almost all public sector organisations employ more than 250 staff, and that employers of this size have higher absence on average than small firms. Workforce composition factors also underlie the variation between private and public sectors; for example, a higher proportion of the public sector workforce is female and women have more spells of absence, which also tend to last longer, than men.

“In addition, certain work-related conditions, including long-lasting stress and common mental health problems, are more prevalent among employees in public facing roles, and this partly explains the higher rates of absence due to these conditions in many parts of the public sector.”

Finally it shouldn’t be forgotten by decision makers (especially Labour councillors), Acas reminds us that: “Successive rounds of workforce restructuring and organisational change, often driven by efficiency programmes, heighten the long-term absence challenge facing public sector organisations, and the health of public sector workers is at risk of harm if such change is badly handled.”

Bringing such analyses up-to-date, earlier this year Stephen Bevan, the Director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at the Work Foundation, drew his readers attention to the 2015 autumn spending review, wherein Chancellor George Osborne announced a review of sickness absence and sick pay in the public sector. Unsurprisingly, Bevan’s conclusions were similar to those previously made within the previously discussed reports. But facts alone are not enough to deter the Government’s recurring attacks on the mythical wasteful public sector (for a good discussion of this, see “Public sector pay – the myths exposed”), thus Bevan concluded: “I’m not expecting this finding to weaken the resolve of the Chancellor to crack down on ‘malingering’. “ He then added:

“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.”

Generous, or one might say fair, sick pay schemes are of course not the problem. The problem is that the Government – in the name of austerity (helping the rich and attacking the poor) — is intent on levelling the terms and conditions of all public sector workers downwards to that of the worst, most abusive, private sector employees. However to fend off these attacks workers will need to unite within trade unions and work in collaboration with Labour representatives who support the popular anti-austerity program of Jeremy Corbyn.

As part of this critical fight, activists within the labour movement will need to secure the mandatory reselection of Labour Party representatives, as it seems that only this will ensure that public sector workers (and private sector workers) are not attacked from both Tory and Blairite Labour Councillors.

Other Useful Resources

Keith Bender and John Heywood, “Out of Balance: Comparing Private and Public Sector Compensation Over 20 Years,” Centre for State and Local Government Excellence, April 2010.

Labour Research Department, Sickness Absence and Sick Pay – A Guide for Union Reps, LRD Booklets October 2010.

Alex Morash, “New Research Debunks Right-Wing Media Myths About Effects Of Paid Leave,” Media Matters for America, August 24, 2016.

UNISON, “The Reality of Sickness Absence – UNISON Scotland,” March 2012.

Sharanjit Uppal and Sebastien LaRochelle-Cote, “Understanding Public–Private Sector Differences in Work Absences,” Insights on Canadian Society, September 19, 2013.

Gunhild Wallin, “Myths Muddle Debate on Sick Leave,” Nordic Labour Journal, February 25, 2010.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s