EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

TUC publishes report on sickness absence

About

Country: 
United Kingdom
Author: 
Thomas Prosser
Institution: 
University of Warwick

In March 2010, the Trades Union Congress published a report entitled ‘The truth about sickness absence’. The report found that UK workers regularly go to work when ‘too ill to do so’. It also identified differing trends among male and female workers, workers of different ages, and those working in the public and private sectors. The report made a series of policy recommendations on ways to manage employee absence.

The UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) published its report on The truth about sickness absence (101Kb MS Word) in March 2010. The report is based on the results of a survey carried out by Opinium Research, which conducted an online poll of 2,003 adults in the period 24–26 February 2010. The results were weighted to nationally representative criteria. The TUC report outlined several findings regarding sickness absence rates in the UK.

The report found that, in the month previous to the survey, about 20% of respondents said that they had gone to work when they were ‘too ill to do so’. A further 36% of respondents reported that, in the last year, they had been to work when they were ‘too ill to do so’. Only 13% of respondents stated that they had never been to work when they had been ‘too ill to do so’.

Gender and age differences

The survey also found differences between the genders and age groups. More women (23%) than men (17%) reported going to work in the previous month when ‘too ill to do so’. It was also found that more male respondents (25%) than females (15%) are worried about the potential loss of pay resulting from being absent. Conversely, a higher proportion of women (21%) than men (19%) reported being worried about letting an employer down due to their absence from work. It was also found that a higher proportion (24%) of younger people aged 18–34 years stated that they were more likely to have gone to work ‘when too ill to do so’ in the previous month compared with the share of 35–54 year olds (23%) and of respondents aged 55 years and over (11%).

Differences between public and private sectors

The report identified differences in absenteeism trends between the UK’s private and public sectors. The survey found that 41% of public sector workers compared with 36% of those in the private sector reported going to work in the previous year ‘when too ill to do so’. The survey also found that only 11% of public sector workers had never been to work ‘when too ill to do so’. This is two percentage points lower than the figure of 13% for all respondents. It was found that public sector workers were more likely than private sector workers to avoid absence because they ‘didn’t want to give colleagues extra work’. On the other hand, private sector workers were more likely than public sector workers to avoid absence because they ‘didn’t want to let (their) employer down’.

The TUC report also cited research carried out by the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which found that public sector workers report long-term sickness absence more often than private sector workers. This was attributed to the existence of poorer private sector sick pay arrangements and the existence of greater occupational hazards in public sector occupations.

Policy recommendations

The report concluded with a series of policy recommendations issued by the TUC. Specifically, the TUC recommended that:

  • employers should support sick employees rather than rush them back to work;
  • jointly agreed sickness absence policies should be concluded with trade unions;
  • a UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guide should be published, recommending that companies keep comprehensive records of sickness levels, remain in contact with absent employees and plan their return to work, and implement changes in workplaces in order to minimise health and safety risks for employees.

Commentary

A CIPD survey published in 2009 showed that rates of employee absence in 2009 had declined (UK0910059I). It is likely that this decline was attributable to the economic downturn and consequent fears that employees had concerning job loss. By demonstrating that many employees go to work when ‘too ill to do so’, the TUC survey will fuel trade union concerns that the economic downturn has also had an adverse effect on the fair management of sickness absence in the UK.

Thomas Prosser, University of Warwick