Over the last 25 years, public sector workers have remained more likely to take sickness leave than those in the private sector. This has been the case every year since 1995 - the earliest year for which data is available. Equivalent public sector pay has also consistently remained higher than the private sector, with workers in 2019-20 being paid 9 per cent more in the public sector. This disparity excludes pensions – which are substantially more generous within the public sector – and is not age specific, with average hourly remuneration in the public sector higher among all age groups in 2019.
This research compares working hours lost between the private and public sectors, and estimates the value of sickness absence for Whitehall departments. The financial year 2019-20 was examined to ensure covid-19 absence does not distort the data.
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- The value of working time lost to sickness absence for 456,410 civil service employees was £348.5 million in the financial year 2019-20.
- If public sector employees were absent at the same rate as private sector employees, the government could regain up to £54,855,844 of working time per year.
Seven departments could regain over £1,000,000 of working time per year. These include: the Department for Work and Pensions; Ministry of Defence; Home Office; Ministry of Justice; Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Department of Transport; the Cabinet Office.
- The department with the highest amount of working time lost to sickness absence was the Department for Work and Pensions at £61.9 million. The Department also had the third-highest yearly loss of value to sickness absence per employee at £791.17 in 2019-20.
- The department with the highest yearly loss of value to sickness absence per civil service employee was the Ministry of Justice at £921.23 per employee in 2019-20. It also had the highest average work days lost per employee, at 8.6 days in 2019-20.
- The civil service responsibility level with the highest yearly loss of value to sickness absence per civil service employee was executive officers at £827.36 per employee in 2019-20. Administrative officers and assistants had the highest average work days lost per employee, losing 10.4 days per employee in 2019-20.
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 Office of National Statistics, Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2021 edition of data set: Table 11, 29 April 2022, www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket, (accessed 4 May 2022).
 BBC, Is there a gap between public and private sector pay?, 26 November 2020, www.bbc.co.uk/news/55089900, (accessed 22 September 2021).
 Office of National Statistics, Public and private sector earnings: 2019; Figure 7: Average hourly earnings, regardless of sector, rise sharply in the younger age groups, 23 September 2021, www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/articles/publicandprivatesectorearnings/2019#detailed-analysis-of-main-factors-affecting-earnings, (accessed 22 September 2021).