THE CBI's latest annual survey shows that staff absence rates are costing the UK economy some £13.2 billion a year and, as usual, the laggards are to be found in the public sector where the gap with private industry has hit a new high.

Employees in the public sector are absent from work an average nine days a year, compared to 5.8 days in the private sector. The private sector's showing improved in 2008 compared to 2007, but the public sector stood still.

What the survey also revealed is that 12 per cent of all absences (about 172 million days lost) are thought to be non-genuine. These sickies' are costing the economy £1.6 billion a year, and employers think that most are being used to extend holidays and weekends.

Long-term absence is the greatest cause for concern. Although only five per cent of absences become long-term, they account for a massive 40 per cent of all time lost.

Employers are therefore faced with the dual problem of sickies' and long-term absence. People who award themselves a day-off are acting unfairly towards their colleagues who turn up and have to take on the extra workload. So far as long-term sickness is concerned, no-one expects anyone to be at the office checking their emails the day after heart bypass surgery. But the evidence shows that employers who keep in touch with staff and who offer flexible working have been very successful in lowering levels.

However, there is a question mark over whether there is a medical explanation for the significantly higher levels of absenteeism in the public sector. This is more likely to be the result, partly at least, of low morale, poor management and a culture of absence.

In the public sector, the highest absence rates are to be found in health and social services, and the police and probation services. In education, they are at their lowest.

How can improvements be made? Carrot and stick' policies have a role where medical insurance is offered, along with heath support and flexible working. Government has a role to play in providing more flexible GP services. But there is a long way to go before acceptable levels of absenteeism, particularly in the public sector, are reached.

  • With Steve Rankin of the CBI