Special Report Number 69:  Sickness Absence in the Civil Service

Summary of Findings

Absence due to illness is a normal incidence of working life. However, from the viewpoint of service delivery, predictable patterns of attendance and low levels of absence are key to managing workflow and ensuring the efficient and timely delivery of public services.

There are no recent statistics on the level and cost of absence in the Civil Service. The last review of the level of sickness absence in the Civil Service was published in 1986. Consequently, this examination set out to

  • identify the financial impact and scale of sickness absence in Civil Service departments
  • analyse the nature of the absence and its distribution amongst staff
  • review the arrangements in place to manage, monitor and control absence due to sickness
  • review the extent to which measures and initiatives have been adopted to promote wellbeing and attendance.

The Department of Finance has ultimate responsibility for the regulation of sickness absence in the Civil Service and day to day management of sickness absence rests with each department. It is the responsibility of departments to take appropriate action to keep absence to a minimum.

Cost of Sickness Absence

The examination estimated that the total remuneration of Civil Service staff during periods of sickness absence was of the order of ?64 million. However, the full cost could be considerably higher if indirect costs were factored in. Apart altogether from the non-effective expenditure incurred there are effectiveness implications. Attempting to maintain existing service levels while working around absence inevitably places an additional burden on staff and the organisation generally.

The examination found that there is scope to promote attendance and manage absence better. Improved absence management could lead to efficiency gains. It is estimated that every 5% reduction in days lost due to absence would reduce non-effective expenditure by ?3.2 million taking account of salary costs alone.

A survey of Civil Service departments found that most departments do not maintain cost information for sickness absence. Departments need to identify the main causes of sickness absence and put formalised structures in place to identify, capture, monitor and report the associated costs.

Pattern of Sickness Absence

The examination found that there has been a significant increase in the level of sickness absence in the Civil Service since it was previously reviewed in the 1980s when the absence rate stood at 3.3%. Almost 5% of available working time was lost to sickness absence in 2007. On average, 59% of all staff employed availed of sick leave in that year. The average employee was absent, on average, for just over eleven days. The examination also found that there was considerable variation in sick days taken when the pattern of absence by grade, age, gender and work sharing arrangements was analysed. Some key findings on the pattern of absence were

  • the average number of days that each employee was out sick ranged from almost five and a half days in the Department of the Taoiseach to nearly 16 days in the Property Registration Authority
  • the percentage of staff who took sick leave ranged from 42% of staff in the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism to 76.5% in the State Laboratory
  • 42% of all instances of absence representing 9% of all days lost were uncertified by a doctor or unauthorised
  • almost half of all sick days were taken by Clerical Officers and three quarters of all Clerical Officers availed of sick leave. The average number of days taken by each Clerical Officer was 16 days
  • female staff absence accounted for 68% of all working days lost, the average number of sick days taken by each female employee was almost 14 days, while the average for each male employee was around eight days
  • the average number of days lost for those working a three day week was almost 80% higher than the average for those who worked a standard week.

The foregoing pattern suggests that management actions need to be tailored after appropriate research in a way that differentiates appropriately between the nature of the organisation, the grades of staff, the gender of employees and the various work patterns.

Managing Sickness Absence

Sickness absence is well governed by Department of Finance rules and regulations. However, there is an ongoing obligation on each department to ensure that regulations are consistently applied and that all absence is accurately recorded, measured, reported on and that appropriate management action is taken as necessary.

The examination found that half of all departments had identified their lost time rate and, where it was done, that there was a lack of consistency in the approaches adopted by departments in identifying the level of absence and in its measurement. Some central guidance could help in this respect.

The examination found that only three of the 29 departments covered by the examination use performance indicators for sickness absence. Each department should identify key performance indicators relating to attendance and set a specific target to achieve each year. There is also scope for departments to share information and good management practices for absence measurement and reduction.

5% of all instances of absence in 2007 lasted longer than 20 days. However, these instances accounted for almost half of all days lost to absence with the average absence lasting 62 days. By focusing initially on long term absence initiatives there could be scope for departments to get better return for their efforts in terms of reducing absence. Timely intervention could help encourage an earlier return to work in these cases. Greater use of return to work interviews following absence could also contribute to improved attendance.

The examination identified a number of specific areas where improvements could be made in managing sickness absence. These include

  • bringing sickness absence guidance up to date and making it easier to administer
  • adopting an attendance policy in each department and creating staff awareness of absence policies and rules
  • extending further the range of responsibilities for absence management that are devolved to line managers.

Overall, there is a need for comprehensive, composite guidance on absence measurement and management.

Promotion of Attendance

Civil Service departments have not been proactive in determining the underlying factors that prevent people from coming to work. As well as managing absences, departments need to actively encourage good attendance by taking positive measures to promote staff wellbeing, encourage healthy lifestyles and ensure positive working arrangements. In order to do this effectively departments need to consider the reasons for the absences that are occurring. The pattern of absence identified by this examination suggests that each department is likely to confront different underlying factors below the immediate medical cause of absence.

10 of the 29 departments reviewed had identified the measures and practices that have worked well in terms of promoting attendance and reducing absence. There is scope for each department to review existing attendance promotion measures with a view to establishing their efficacy in the department?s environment. In particular, departments should take the following steps

  • identify any underlying factors which give rise to absence
  • provide a positive working environment by continuously reviewing the scope to involve staff in job design in order to make work more interesting and enhance staff engagement and commitment
  • build on the existing attendance promotion measures that are in place and evaluate their contribution from time to time
  • evaluate work/life balance and other flexible working arrangements to determine whether they have an impact on the level of sickness absence and whether there are mutual benefits accruing to both the department and its staff from their operation
  • review the effectiveness of health promotion measures adopted.

Measurement and Monitoring

Ultimately, successful attendance promotion initiatives need to be based on information and evidence including evaluations of the impact of those measures. In order to ensure that this type of information is available, departments should

  • improve recording of absence in order to ensure that information is complete and accurate
  • regularly report absence statistics at management level and establish targets for absence reduction
  • publish absence rates in the department?s annual report
  • maintain overall statistics of absence cases where disciplinary procedures or sanctions are applied and regularly review the effectiveness of sanctions applied.

Good Practice Opportunities

As well as including detailed recommendations for the better management of absence and the promotion of attendance the report outlines a number of case studies that outline initiatives which departments have found work well. While not all such initiatives are transferable to different working environments there clearly is scope for sharing of good practice through a suitable network.