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TUC reports public sector staff are more likely to work when ill and less likely to call in sick

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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.

The TUC poll found within the last month, more than one in five public sector workers have been to work when they were really too ill to do so (21%).

And within the last year a further 41% (compared to 36% of private sector workers) have gone into work ill when they should have stayed off sick within the last year.

Only one in ten public sector workers (11%) have never been to work when they were too ill to go. One in three cited their reason for going into work when unwell was 'people depend on the job I do and I didn't want to let them down'. Others were concerned about the impact their absence would have on colleagues: 'I didn't want to give my colleagues extra work' (18% of public sector workers compared with 12% of private sector workers said this was the case).

The regular CBI/AXA absence surveys also back this up and reveal public sector staff are less likely to take absences of one or a few days - how sick days are traditionally defined - than in the private sector. The majority of short-term absence is in the private sector (69% of private sector absence is short-term) but only around 50% of public sector absence is short-term.

Public sector employers are more likely to be supportive of those with long-term illnesses and have good sickness policies in place, according to the TUC report.

Around one in eight (12%) of public sector employees told the TUC survey they were concerned about losing pay by not going into work, whereas this was the second biggest concern for private sector workers with twice the amount, around one in four (23%), saying 'I would have lost pay and I can't afford to'.

TUC general gecretary Brendan Barber said: "People often talk about a 'sick note culture' in the UK. Many seem to think that public sector workers are particularly guilty of taking time off work when they are not really unwell.

"The truth is workers routinely go into work when they are too ill and should be at home. And they do this - not because they are afraid of their boss - but because they know they do vital jobs in over-stretched workplaces.

"Absence rates have been falling over time in the public and private sectors. It is a myth that there are big, quick and easy savings from new policies that assume that sickness absence is mostly skiving.

"Of course positive sickness absence policies are important in the public and private sectors. But there is most to gain from tackling the causes of absence, particularly stress, and helping people return to work.

"Employers who use the carrot approach of engaging with their workforce in a positive way will reap the benefits, while those who use the stick approach will find it backfires on them."

But according to absence management organisation First Care, the TUC survey, which polled 2,003 people (of which 42% were students, retired or unemployed) can be disputed.

Drawing on FirstCare's database of 150,000 employees, its CEO Aaron Ross says public sector workers have significantly higher sickness levels than similar employees in the private sector. Last year (2009) 9.4 days were lost per employee in the public sector; 21% higher than the 7.7 days in the private sector.

Ross added: "There is no suggestion that public sector employees are a ‘bunch of skivers' but we cannot ignore the high rates of absenteeism.

"The TUC report does nothing to champion the plight of public sector workers; it is undeniable that public sector employees have higher absence rates than those in the private sector.

"Instead of trying to mask this, the TUC should be highlighting the need of large public sector organisations to understand sickness absence. There is always a cause of absence and only when you understand this can you hope to reduce absenteeism.

"Public sector employees need to be given assistance to improve their health from the moment they begin their absence, and in many cases even before, and managers need to be given the tools and support to manage absence more effectively. But it is possible."