Briefing: public sector sickness

On 19 April 2024, prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a range of welfare reforms in a bid to end what he called Britain’s “sick note culture”.[1] The prime minister highlighted that eleven million fit notes were issued last year with only 6 per cent signed maybe fit for work.[2] This note shows that civil servants, which ministers are responsible for, have taken more sick days than private sector employees every year since 1995.




Key findings

  • In 2022, the public sector sickness rate was 3.6 per cent while the private sector rate was 2.3 per cent. The last time the disparity between the public and private sectors was this large was in 2009.
  • The public sector sickness rate is at its highest level since 2003, when it was 3.8 per cent.
  • The total cost of civil servant sick days was over £459 million in 2023. The total cost of civil service sick days in 2023 is almost equivalent to building a new hospital.[3]
  • Senior civil servants in 2023 lost an average of 3 days a year to sickness. The largest loss of days to sickness in the civil service was seen at the administrative officers and assistants’ grade which lost 11.8 days per staff. The average working days lost per member of staff in the civil service was 8.1 days.
  • The largest cost to the taxpayer of sickness absence in the civil service was seen in the administrative officers and assistants level whose total cost of sick days amounted to over £140 million. The executive officer level was the second highest, costing almost £130 million.




[1] Prime Minister’s Office, PM to overhaul benefits system and tackle Britain's "sick note culture" in welfare reform speech, 19 April 2024,, (accessed 22 April 2024).

[2], Prime Minister’s speech on welfare: 19 April 2024, 19 April 2024,, (accessed 22 April 2024).

[3] NHS Providers, NHS capital investment must be long term and must include mental health, 2 October 2020,, (accessed 19 April 2024).

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