Do You Know Why Public Sector Workers are More Likely to Miss Work?


Public sector workers play a vital role in society; keeping the public in good health, educated and protected, as evidenced by the current national coronavirus crisis.

However, data shows that during more normal times than the country is currently facing, workers in the public sector are significantly more likely to miss work than the rest of the UK workforce. It therefore begs the question, why have public sector workers taken more unplanned leave than their counterparts at private businesses since 1995 and what can we do to better support them?

Whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question, solutions can be found through rigorous analysis of data relating to the absence of the UK’s workforce.

With an unprecedented level of pressure about to be put on our public sector workers, it is vitally important that this existing absence problem is properly understood. With new measures about to be introduced to support our public sector employees, the current issues facing workers must not be buried, but addressed long term once the pandemic is over.

The absence problem in the public sector

There is a historic problem of employees being absent from work in the public sector that needs to be understood for it to be addressed. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS’s) report on sickness absence amongst the UK workforce, released last year, highlighted the depth of the problem.

The report shows that sickness absence rates within the public and private sector stood at 2.7% and 1.8% respectively in 2018. The data shows this disparity stretches back 25 years.

The reason for this difference lies in multiple factors, including the nature of the work and the terms of employment.

Public sector professions, such as nursing and waste collection, can mean workers are placed in environments that hold a higher risk of illnesses than a typical office job. It was telling to see the Government’s recent list of ‘key workers’ who can keep their children in school, heavily weighted towards public sector employees risking their health on the front line.

Contrastingly, private sector workers may be more inclined to go to work, despite being ill, as they are less likely to be paid for taking unplanned leave, and their roles lend themselves better to working from home.

Public sector employers most affected by absence

It is crucial that employers, including public sector bodies, take a sector-specific approach to tackling absence, studying the data available and the unique factors affecting workers.

For instance, FirstCare’s database shows that the organisation – in both the public and private sector – with the most working days lost to absence in 2019 was the NHS, with an average of 9.6 days per employee.

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This equates to over thirteen million days lost to absence that can show interesting patterns. For example, our data shows that six percent of all NHS absences are mental health related – an issue that could be addressed by the provision of additional support and wellness initiatives.

This issue is mirrored across the public sector, local councils also have one of the highest absence problems in the UK, losing 8.8 days per employee to absence. This figure has increased by five percent in the past five years, which should serve as a clear indication that the causes of absence need to be investigated or they will continue to increase.

FirstCare’s data shows that last year the top reasons for employee absences in the public sector were colds, mental health and musculoskeletal problems. These can be used as a basic starting point in attempts to reduce absence.

Data-informed solutions to address the absence gap

Leaders need to be aware of the unique causes of unplanned leave within their organisations and develop strategies in line with these issues to ensure employees thrive.

By using data to understand why staff are taking unplanned leave, employers can implement initiatives to solve the issues their staff are facing.

For example, one business that we work with combined insights they found from data related to mental health unplanned leave with feedback from their own employees and found that debt issues were a significant contributary factor to their workforce wellbeing and productivity issues.

As a direct result, they partnered with a company that could offer optional low interest loans taken directly from their pay to help ease their financial worries. They found that this scheme not only offered practical help but opened the conversation on mental health between employee and employer.

Public sector workers deliver invaluable service to the nation. It is only through truly understanding the causes of staff absence that public sector bodies can start to address it. That starts with a clear, nationally implemented data-capturing structure, which logs the causes of staff illnesses.

About the Author

Ian Caminsky is the CEO at FirstCare, the UK’s leading workforce absence management system. From FTSE 100 companies to NHS Trusts, we have a strong track record of supporting organisations to manage and reduce unplanned workforce absences, covering more than 600,000 employees in the UK


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