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Persistently higher absence levels in the public sector due mainly to Stress

CIPD annual survey reveals persistently higher absence levels in the public sector, with stress the most common cause of long-term absence among all employees.

Over a third (35%) of employers across all sectors have reported that stress-related absence has increased over the past year and is the main cause for persistently high levels of long-term public sector absence. This is according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence Survey, the results of which are released today in partnership with healthcare provider, Simplyhealth.

The survey reveals that 73% of manual and 79% of non-manual public sector employers rate stress as a top-five common cause of absence. This compares to an average across all sectors of 51% and 63% respectively (manufacturing and production: 35% and 50%, private sector services: 48% and 60%, and non-profit: 61% and 68%).

Published five days after the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) highlighting the importance of improving public sector productivity, the survey shows that over half (56%) rated organisational change/restructuring as a top-three cause of work-related stress. This compares to an average across all sectors of 39% (manufacturing and production: 31%, private sector services: 34%, and non-profit: 36%).

Average absence as a result is three days higher in the public sector compared to private sector services, at 9.6 days per employee per year compared to 6.6 days, and remains much lower in other sectors: 6.9 days in manufacturing and production and 8.3 days in the non-profit sector. Even when the high level of non-profit sector absence is taken into consideration, the average level of absence throughout the UK workforce is still almost two days less than the public sector, at 7.7 days per employee. The median cost of public sector absence is £889 per employee per year compared to a median across all sectors of £600 per employee per year (manufacturing and production: £400, private sector services: £600, and non-profit: £600).

Dr Jill Miller, CIPD Adviser, said: “The survey shows why closing the gap between public and private sector absence has proved so difficult for successive governments. Compared to the private sector, more public sector employees are in challenging public facing roles such as social work, policing, teaching and nursing where they often have to deal with people in difficult and emotionally charged situations, putting pressure on their time and resilience. In addition, organisational change and restructuring is cited more commonly by public sector employers than those in other sectors as a major cause of stress, which will only increase in the near future as a consequence of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review.”

The Absence Survey shows that public sector employers are taking steps to reduce the higher levels of stress prevalent in their sector, through interventions like:
• staff surveys (public sector 82%; private sector services 56%, manufacturing and production 51%, and non-profit 75%)
• flexible working options (public sector 77%; private sector services 61%, manufacturing and production 36%, and non-profit organisations 69%)
• training in stress management for managers and staff (public sector 68%; private sector services 57%, manufacturing and production 63%, and non-profit 54%))
• stress risk assessments (public sector 74%; private services 43%, manufacturing and production 61%, and non-profit 60%)

Helen Dickinson, Head of People, Simplyhealth, commented: “It’s good to see that the public and private sectors are putting practices in place to help reduce stress and subsequent sickness absence. In difficult financial times, finding the budget for this may be a concern but there are a range of relatively inexpensive methods companies can introduce such as workshops to help employees manage stress, one-to-one coaching, plus advice on how diet and exercise can help reduce stress. Ensuring approaches to tackling stress are integrated into the organisation's health and wellbeing strategy is crucial to helping employees through difficult times and ensuring that stress related sickness absence doesn’t continue to rise.”

Dr Miller adds: “It is also vital to ensure that line managers have the people management skills to coach and develop their staff, set clear objectives, provide honest feedback, as well as to provide support where needed and manage team relationships. The government should commission a review of management development spending across the public sector to ensure that money is invested in providing the leadership and management skills that drive individual and organisational resilience and performance. Only then will there be progress on closing the absence gap with the private sector.”

Across all sectors, the recession and the subsequent recovery has taken its toll on absence. Over a third (38%) noted an increase in reported mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression; a big rise on last year’s survey when one-fifth reported an increase. Furthermore only one-fifth of organisations have increased their focus on employee wellbeing and health promotion as a result of the recession which suggests there is more that companies could be doing in this area to help reduce sickness absence.

View the Absence Survey

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