Figures released today show that the long-term trend for sickness absence is for it to go down, not up. Not that you’ll read much of that in the papers, most of them are following the Prime Minister’s lead last week when he announced the government’s review of sickness absence:
We simply have to get to grips with the sicknote culture that means a short spell of sickness can far too easily become a gradual slide to a life of long-term benefit dependency.
What is the full picture? Since the year 2000, the Labour Force Survey has included questions on sickness absence – people who are surveyed are asked whether they have been off sick at all that week. This means that today’s figures can be put in the context of the results for each quarter over the past ten years:
Now, it is certainly true that the percentage of absent workers has been rising since the end of 2008, but the bigger picture is a long-term decline. The headline on the Press Association’s release – “Increased sickness absence recorded” – is very selective (unfortunately, its the line a lot of the papers are likely to take).
A second point that we’re almost certainly going to hear in the stories in tomorrow’s papers is about the differential between the public and private sectors. (The Telegraph website already has its own charming way of putting things: “Public sector workers taking more sickies”)
In the 4th quarter of 2010, 3.1 per cent of public sector workers were absent, compared with 2.3 per cent of private sector workers. There are plenty of reasons for this – in the past, the Health and Safety Executive has pointed out that there is more under-reporting of absence in the private sector and that absence is lower in small enterprises (common in the private sector, rare in the public.) There are also differences of gender, age and responsibilities.
Again, let’s put the figures in the context of ten years’ results:
Yes, there is a difference between the sectors, which widened last year (public sector workers’ fears about their jobs may possibly have something to do with this). But what I’d like you to note is that the 3.1 per cent figure for public sector workers at the end of 2010 is lower than the 3.2 per cent for the private sector in 2000.
Back in 2000 we used to hear exactly the same sort of criticisms of public sector workers’ absence that we do now. The private sector was held up then, as it is now as a stick to beat them with. But I doubt very much whether the politicians will be complimenting the public sector on achieving what they used to be told was the standard to emulate.