Absenteeism in the public sector

“They can’t all be ill” said someone looking at high absence figures in part of the public sector. They probably were not. Some private sector organisations have an absenteeism problem. There it is usually a sign of low morale, poor leadership, poorly structured jobs. Some parts of the public sector suffer from high absentee rates too. Senior public sector managers need to change their organisations so more people turn up. The public sector probably has to have 1% more staff to cover for excess absence.

Anyone who is ill should of course have time off to have it checked out and to recover. The flu ridden employee or the staff member with an infectious cold may do more harm than good struggling in to work, only to spread the disease more. The issue is the employees who claim they are sick because they wish to extend the week-end, have a hangover from excessive drinking the night before, have better things to do than turn up for work. I once had to help senior managers tackle high absenteeism in a factory environment. The factory needed improving in all sorts of ways to make it a better working environment, which management did. They fired the worst offender who took far too much time off when they could prove they were not ill. This had a galvanising effect. Management was congratulated by other staff members who said they were fed up having to cover for that person when they knew it was not illness. General standards rose as a result.

If you wish to manage something you need to show it matters and explain what you want to achieve. It must be fair and sensible. The aim here is not to make people feel they mustn’t be ill, or hurry them when they need rest and treatment. The aim here is to deal with abuse. That needs to be explained. You then need to measure and monitor it, to see if the team follow the new policy laid out.

Figures can be revealing. If there is an outbreak of flu then you would expect a big surge in absence. If the absence figures shows a cluster of non attendance on Fridays or Mondays,or on hot days or days when there are major events or functions, suspicions should be aroused. You should also know your workforce well enough to help them realise their wishes whilst still doing a decent week’s work. If there is a big football match on tv they all want to watch, then consider letting them do that at work. You’ll lose 100 minutes, not the whole day, and have some goodwill.

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39 Comments

  1. Dame Rita Webb
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    The problem is though despite the UK having the reputation of having a “flexible labour market” is how hard it is to get a rid of a dud employee. Everybody here who has worked in a large business will have come across a colleague who will swing the lead. When complaints have been made. The response from the management will be, unless its something criminal they have been up to, its virtually impossible to get a rid of them, without enduring the cost of putting them on “gardening leave”, the tribunal etc

    • Nig l
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      That has got nothing to do with the labour laws, only weak management who fail to realise the effect on the rest of the workforce who are fed up with covering for the lead swingers. An attitude survey of people in the financial sector in London that I was part of showed quite clearly people wanted this issue dealt with and Management should understand that gaining respect by dealing with difficult issues makes them popular not turning a blind eye. A correctly followed disciplinary procedure, evidence based, with support for the staff member will resolve these issues. It might not be quick and the system can be gamed but it sends a clear message. The problem is failing to follow the procedures. In public sector orgs I have worked with performance management has been woeful and this aspect non existent.

      It is disgraceful that JR has to flag this in 2017.

    • Hope
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Question of fact JR, females are more sick than males, particularly over 40 years. Do you think this will feature anywhere in the public sector PC world?

      Public sector allowed to work from home is a huge productivity issue. How do you guide advise and act as a role model from home? Even head teachers do this!

      • Lifelogic
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        Indeed but as the state sector produce to lttle of value anyway does it realy make much difference here? Women do indeed take more sick days, perhaps due to sick children or caring for elderly relatives or dealing with other such family emergencies – albeit rather dishonestly.

        This is certainly true in my experience.

    • Lifelogic
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Indeed the over protection of “dead wood” employees harms good employees hugely who have to put up with them, cover & make good for them. It also harms employers and businesses and hugely damages the economy and competitivity. In ensures good staff get lower pay than they would otherwise

      But Theresa May likes daft regulation and even “wants to build on them”. Thus showing what little she understands about business and the economy. How lacking in vision this weak soft socialist government is.

      But then she has never really worked in a competitive environment, unless you count the “Association for Payment Clearing Services” which I certainly do not.

      She is was after all another tax, borrow and over-regulate lefty or “no nation conservative remainer” until she become a clear Brexit supporter for political advantage (allegedly).

      A shame she did not ditch her silly socialism and the gender pay tosh too at the same time.

      • Dame Rita Webb
        Posted July 23, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Quite a few MPs have never earned as much money once they get elected. The people of calibre that you would be looking to become an MP would have to take a massive pay cut. I am quite happy for MPs to get paid a lot more if it reflects what they were pulling in beforehand.

  2. Lifelogic
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    The state sector generally has very generous sick pay arrangements and the staff in general know exactly what these are and many just regard them as an additional perk of the job. The others working with them then see this and feel they are missing out and having to cover for others swinging the lead.

    Some people take a whole year of sick then return before they are fired and do it again a bit later. No one cares much as it is not their money, it is the tax payers. Anyway so much of what the state does has so little value anyway. Who would care if a box junction mugging camera goes with repair?

    • Lifelogic
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:48 am | Permalink

      The bonkers & over protective employment laws obviously encourage the taking of such sickies. The daft lefty Theresa May even want “to build on” these EU workers rights so we will get even more of this cheating.

      What is the gender split on sick days in the state sector I wonder? Do we have the figures? Are men more or less likely than women to steal off the tax payers with sickies I wonder?

      After all everything else you measure about the genders has statistically different variations. The types of jobs they do, the books/magazines they read, the cars they buy, the hobbies they have ……

      • Lifelogic
        Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:51 am | Permalink

        “statistically significant” I meant.

  3. Lifelogic
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    The BBC reports that – blood donation rules relaxed for gay men and sex workers and also considering relaxing the rules for people who have undergone acupuncture, piercing, tattooing and endoscopy, and for those with a history of non-prescribed injecting drug use. users too – sounds like political correctness over sensible science once again to me.

    Rather like when they equalised male and female alcohol guidelines. Were these “experts” similar to the ones who allowed tall building to be clad in flammable insulation, told the residents to return to their flats for 2+ hours after it was clear the fire was out of control, thought the ERM and the EURO were just great ideas, think that HS2, Hinkley and greencrap subsidies are an “investment”, did all the climate alarmist computer modelling that has been shown to be complete drivel, or bought all the blood product in from the USA (often sourced from prison inmates) – killing thousands via the NHS?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-40669950

    • rose
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      This follows hard on the heels of the outrage at historic infection through donated blood. No reference was made to the earlier story.

      • Lifelogic
        Posted July 25, 2017 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        Indeed mad especially as there is not shortage of volunteer anyway.

  4. eeyore
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Another post pointing to serious rot in the bloated public service. Absenteeism is indeed a problem of morale, and that in turn is one of leadership.

    It is emphatically not to be solved with more money. That would only make it worse. On more than one national newspaper in the 1970s the already highly paid journalists operated a full-blown sickie rota and received an “Attendance Allowance” if they actually turned up for work.

    I believe it was £10 a day and was written into their contracts. The abuse ended only when Mr Murdoch pushed through his Wapping revolution that broke up the old Fleet Street. As JR found, decent employees were relieved to see it go.

    • Nig l
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Spot on.

  5. Bryan Harris
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 5:54 am | Permalink


    Sensible, but it still riles to know that my taxes are paying for all of this waste in the public sector, when the money would do more good in my pocket.

    The country needs a proper education on economics, then perhaps it will filter through to the managers that can make things work properly

    • Lifelogic
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      The money would invariably be better spent by the taxpayer who earned it rather than the government.

      They care not what they spend nor what value they give – if any at all – and it show everywhere.

  6. Lifelogic
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    You say:- “Senior public sector managers need to change their organisations so more people turn up.”

    What incentives do senior managers have to do that? None at all. It is not their money and it would make them very unpopular. They care not what they spend nor what value they give – it shows everywhere you look in the state sector.

    “The public sector probably has to have 1% more staff to cover for excess absence”.

    Staffing in the state sector is more like three times what is actually needed to deliver the little of real value they do deliver. Mainly as much of what they do is pointless anyway, or even positively harmful to the public. Also as they have little incentive to be efficient. To the NHS patients are just a nuisance and liability – not paying customers to be encouraged and well served.

  7. agricola
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I think I covered this yesterday. The public sector does not work as well as it could, there being little competition and the public money tree. Those in it do not all realise that they are twigs on the money tree, who cares it keeps growing.

    Within the NHS the only argument I can see for such a large organisation is the buying power it should bring. I doubt if they use it or even know how to use it. I would progressively privatise the lot and create a separate purchasing company to supply the private hospitals. We then might begin to get value for money, £101.3 Billion PA at the last count in England alone. Joe Public needs to be educated to the realisation that they pay this sum in tax, it does not come for free. Future payment should be from a combination of tax and private insurance , the latter against their tax bill.

    Every quango in the country heads a function that could be privatised without the political, emotional, erroneous, baggage of the NHS. The real satisfaction apart from the country getting working services would be the thought of all the Marxists vomiting over their cornflakes.

  8. alan jutson
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Many private companies do not pay people at all if they are sick and do not turn up, or who are not available for work.

    I am not suggesting that this is right or wr0ng, but it would be interesting to do an absence or sickness comparison with such companies against those who pay a full salary for an extensive period of time for any sort of absence..

    Clearly if an employee has a major and significant illness, then that is a real problem for them and a justifiable reason for absence, but stress at work seems to be the increasing long term excuse/reason given for a lengthy absence, I wonder what efforts are made to get to the bottom of this by employers, do they offer any form of help, monitoring, or simply say, unfortunately that is the nature of the job, get on with it or we shall have to let you go.

    • alastair
      Posted July 24, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      The distinction here is management of the problem and management of the risk. The important point is to have clear policies and make sure the management implement them. The policies have to be designed to ensure the balance of financial loss is shared between employee and employer. Get this wrong as a private company and at worst you go out of business. Get it wrong in the public sector and the tax payer suffers. Probably goes a good way to explaining our productivity problems.

  9. David Slavin
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    There is very good data comparing the public sector sickness absence (SA) with similar private sector and self employed. Largely matched for social and other confounders there are multiples difference in the rate that is not explained by medical illness. Obviously public SA is higher. Some 40% is due to “stress” alone so I am strongly in agreement with many of John’s comments about morale and leadership

    If only the public unions would accept this and allow more contractual flexibility then the rush to outsource and TUPE would be lessened. So there is also a “rules of the game” element

    So much SA is little to do with illness and a study on GP sick notes so that more than 2/3 are nothing to do with a strictly technical medical diagnosis

    However, there is one point (about which I have spoken about on R4) that I feel merits a debate: and that is that the NHS is not configured for working people. By that I mean minor psy, back pains, joint replacements etc. are a low clinical priority and that leads to very long waiting times, protracted SA and loss of employment with all that entails

  10. Duncan
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    The public sector is a vested interest. It’s run for the benefit of the employee backed by the absolute strength of their various unions and is overseen by politicians who abuse the taxpayer to finance its activities

    The public sector is not run for the benefit of the end-user nor is it run for the benefit of the taxpayer

    The end-user has zero power. The taxpayer has zero power. The unions have absolute power. The politicians have absolute power. Power reigns supreme and those who are unable to apply leverage will be ignored and dismissed. It is the nature of the State and its activities

    The State is a vested interest in itself and its primary objective is the protection of itself and its interests.

    There is the State and then there’s the ‘unState’. You’re either on the inside or the outside and those on the outside have zero influence

    I gave up concerning myself with this issue years ago. We all know the State and the public sector waste money hand over fist. My aim is to protect myself from the grasping hands of the State. I will protect my own interests in the same way that public sector and state workers protect theirs.

  11. Caterpillar
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Apart from the usual moans (difficulty of removing dud employees, a culture of nights out with work colleagues, a culture that everything should be fun and easy – reality TV and unrealistic BBC pay as models, the Unite union …) I’d like to put a shout in here against Ageism (particularly as pension ages increase).

    This can only be subjective evaluation but my own impression is that I have seen plenty of under 30s be ‘sick’ and yet not the over 50s/60s. Whilst there is a focus on other isms* the age one of which many organisations seem guilty (either accidentally or transparently – “recent graduate sort” ) should be tackled. I suspect a little bit of positive discrimination (!) towards employing older workers may bring about some improvement.

    (* gender at the moment as the BBC overpay female ‘stars’ less than they overpay male ‘stars’)

    • Caterpillar
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Schools – sought not sort

  12. Kenneth
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    We had a policy whereby the employee had to report their intended sickness absence to the person that was most directly affected by it. This often led to a reappraisal of the individual’s sickness and a change of mind and I am sure prevented many of the calls in the first place.

    Companies – and especially the public sector – that have an impersonal system whereby intended absence can be reported to an uninterested telephonist or a machine (or even using a phone app!) are virtually inviting their employees to take time off sick

    The public sector also has a cultural problem whereby some levels of management are complicit in a blind-eye system where sickness is seen as an extension to the holiday entitlement. I have witnessed this personally.

  13. Epikouros
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Indeed the level of absenteeism is largely all about the quality of the management. However other contributing factors include the efficacy of organisational systems and the attitudes and policies of owners, legislators and bureaucrats. Also another considerable factor are government/vested interests enforced rules, regulations, employee rights and privileges. None that make managements job any easier and often encourage employees to play the system and not just in taking time off when it suits them.

    The result is that productivity suffers, labour costs increase and so can lead to a decrease in the ability to compete and even failure of a business/organisation. Then of course the clamour is for the government to take protectionist measures. Why not? Much better to blame others especially Johnny foreigner and the baby eating Tories for self inflicted wounds rather than oneself for having a lack of self awareness and wanting more than the situation warrants.

  14. Bert Young
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    The work ethic in the public sector where absenteeism has a bad record is the result of more senior management not doing the supervision part of their job properly and Union influence . Being able to stand up to any sort of malingering requires a robust form of control that is supported from the very top .

    In more recent times – and certainly after the Thatcher regime , Union influence has increased and become much more irresponsible . The time has come for rigid legislation to re-invigorate employers of all descriptions . Employers are prevented from introducing all sorts of sensible economies that modern technology has made possible ; we must be able to compete with the world and not be hindered by anything .

  15. Bob
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    “They fired the worst offender who took far too much time off when they could prove they were not ill.”

    all very well for a large company with an HR department, but how does a small business handle such an issue?
    The time and energy taken to defend the business to a tribunal is what makes most small business owners put up with the shirkers. It’s not easy to prove their behaviour, you have to experience it.

    • Bob
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I even understand that verbal warnings have to be done in writing!

    • Nig l
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Having worked with 100’s of small businesses I have heard this excuse umpteen times. It is short termism, they completely overlook the fact that over the long term failure to deal with these people will have a far greater negative effect than the problem, if it is one, of sorting it out. It is their fault if they end up and worse if they lose, at a tribunal, because, as I saw umpteen times, a failure to have proper procedures and follow them. It is a symptom of a wider malaise, namely owner managers are excellent at ‘widget making’ but do not have the skills across all the functions nor are prepared or have the money to get support. Do an audit just against the headline areas of a balanced business score board and you will see what I mean.

  16. bigneil
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Let them watch ONE football match – and – someone else will want the rugby, someone else will want Wimbledon, someone else will want the Moto GP, someone else will want the Formula One, Someone else will want the horse racing, someone else will want the show jumping. While all these people are sat watching the tv ( and presumably getting paid?) what about the factory floor workers who are basically stuck to machines that are running non-stop – like my job was. I know some will say or think that stuck to a machine for 12 hours, stood up on concrete, having to run outside and pee behind a stack of wooden pallets in order to get back to the machine in time before it goes wrong, is better than the working class deserve, some will say what I have written is a pack of lies – it isn’t. Regularly not even getting a chance to go and have a sit down and eat away from the job. Don’t say “complain to the HR dept”. They didn’t want to know and just referred it back to the manager who was allowing it to happen -which got the complainant even more grief. . This was before “constructive dismissal” arrived . .
    We even had one manager, who had reached his mid 30s without realising that people who worked night shifts actually went to sleep during the day. He thought they all just stayed awake. Position of power, got a degree – – and thought people stayed awake for up to a week when working night shifts.

    • alan jutson
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      bigneil

      I believe you, I have seen it, true it was many years ago, but sure it still happens now, human nature does not change, no matter that we have loads of laws, some people are desperate for a job and the employer knows it.

      Sleeping on night shift was common problem, hence the reason why a night shift usually produced less volume of goods at a higher fault rate.
      Those sleeping usually hid themselves well, and had working lookouts because they simply took it in turns to be asleep or on work/lookout duty.

      One guy at our factory was found asleep in a packing case with the lid gently placed on the top to cover him !

  17. English Pensioner
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    My elder daughter worked for public sector for 25 years reaching a senior administrative post in charge of quite a lot of staff. She produced some statistics which showed that women, on average, had far more sick leave than men, and that didn’t count the late arrivals and early goes.
    She recounted the story of one woman who put in very little time over a total of three years. She had a couple of pregnancies; prior to the birth she had her full allowance of sick leave as well as her annual leave, and when she came in she did very little as she mustn’t lift or stretch or stand for too long. Following the birth she took maternity leave, by the end of which she was pregnant again and repeated the whole exercise. After the second birth, she took more maternity leave, returned for the necessary period and handed in her notice.
    This sort of thing is resented by the honest workers, often single women, as they can’t claim they are late in because little Johnny was feeling poorly, or going early because she has to pick him up after school.
    My daughter was offered voluntary redundancy on very good terms which she took; she feels that she was on of the few to whom the offer was made as she had made life uncomfortable for her seniors by drawing attention to what was going on.

    • Anonymous
      Posted July 23, 2017 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

      Sadly true in my experience. Getting the easy shifts and duties too.

  18. John S
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I worked for a public utility company where the absentee rate amongst the blue collars was far higher than that of white collar staff. I should imagine this is the same nationwide.
    I know of an employee at Norfolk County Council who has had 100 days off “sick” in 2 years. One excuse was, “I had a row with my sister, felt depressed so I did not come in.” This is a consequence of militant trade unionism and weak and cowardly management in the public sector.

  19. JoolsB
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    It’s a known fact that those in the pampered public sector see sick leave as an extension of their annual leave entitlement. Also flexible working is rife in the public sector, i.e. working the hours to suit themselves. Surely this all goes to prove that the public sector is bloated and needs to be cut significantly to save the productive, hard working, non pampered, private sector from seeing their taxes wasted not to mention funding their gold plated pensions that they themselves can only dream of. And I include 650 politicians in the UK parliament in that, full time and part time (Scottish, Welsh & NI MPs) as well as 850+ out of touch, un-elected and unaccountable old fogies in the other place.

  20. fedupsoutherner
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’ve worked in the private and public service in my time and can honestly say that those in the public service extracted the urine big time! Sickness leave was rife, days off for long weekends regular and cooking the books for expenses was also another problem. It was nothing for the whole office (5 of us) to each take a car to go to head office for something. We worked in Southampton and the head office was in Brighton. When I and a couple of others suggested car sharing the boss said that wasn’t going to happen. We all went separately. What a waste of public money. My best friend works in the NHS and is always off sick with one thing or another. Days here and there and uses the time to garden or decorate the house.

  21. Pragmatist
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Absenteeism is not a bad thing necessaruly in heavy industry or indeed in repetitive industries. It is a natural reaction to overwork in both categories. In the public sector it is more because the government has permitted and promoted and allowed unbelievable amounts of corruption in job acquisition and promotion. If the result isn’t absenteeism or slipshod work then…something else will burst at the seams. There is a limit to how many “bosses’ sons” , metaphorically speaking, can be in senior positions without the company collapsing. Local authorities are chock-a-block with bosses’ sons.

  22. Richard1
    Posted July 23, 2017 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Do we know the percentage figure for absence across various parts of the public sector? It can of course be reformed by altering incentives and ensuring offenders are fired. By the late 80s, before the reforming Conservative govt got elected, Sweden had a terrible problem with industrial absenteeism. The average was around 25%, peaking on mondays and fridays. Market reforms were introduced to stop such behaviour and the problem was cured. Let’s do the same thing in our public sector, starting by highlighting the stats.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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