Sickness Absence: Who Takes The Most Time Off Work?

03 Jun 2002

Which employees take the most time off work through sickness? Writing in the latest issue of the Economic Journal, Tim Barmby, Marco Ercolani and John Treble present the first fully comparable data about worker absence across countries. Their analysis of patterns of absenteeism in nine countries – Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK – reveals that:

  1. There are wide national variations in average rates of absence, from a low of 1.26% in Luxembourg to a high of 8.42% in Sweden. Sweden''s rate is particularly high, perhaps because of a generous system of sick pay. France''s sick pay system is also very generous but the country''s absence rate is low. The UK''s regulated rates of sick pay are very small relative to both countries, but its absence rate lies between the two.
  2. Despite these differences in average levels, patterns of absence according to age and sex are very similar in all these economies. For example, male absenteeism is generally lower than female.
  3. Single men have the lowest absence rates while married women have the highest absence rates. Explanations are likely to involve the relationship between household and paid work and the differing structure of temporary and permanent work contracts.
  4. For the most part, the older the age group, the higher the rate of absence (the one exception being declining absence rates for men until their mid-20s). What''s more, the difference between male and female absence rates increases with age.
  5. In several countries, heavy manufacturing industries have the highest absence rates. This may be partially attributable to higher risks in these industries of direct injury and exposure to factors leading to illness. Overall, the sector with the highest absence rate is ''health and social services'', while the sector with the lowest absence rate is ''financial and related services''.
  6. Lower sickness absence is associated with occupations with a higher degree of responsibility in the workplace.
  7. Employees with longer tenure have higher absence rates. Possible explanations include a job security effect (employees believe their jobs to be secure and the cost of absence accordingly lower); and the fact that tenure is naturally correlated with age and sickness absence increases with age.
  8. Absence rates are higher with higher usual hours of work.

Until now, it has been widely assumed that the extent of worker absenteeism varies considerably across countries and industries, between occupations and sexes, and with age. But it has not been at all well documented. These researchers have developed a technique to extract the first internationally comparable absenteeism data, using the widely available Labour Force Surveys.

Analysis of this kind is of particular importance because the costs of absenteeism in modern economies is reckoned to be very high. The CBI reports annual figures that have not recently been below £10 billion per year.

It is also suspected that not all absence is unavoidable, although estimates of the size of this effect are few and far between. If this is true, then if small reductions in avoidable absence can be made, large reductions in industrial costs could follow.

''Sickness Absence: An International Comparison'' by Tim Barmby, Marco Ercolani and John Treble is published in the June 2002 issue of the Economic Journal. Barmby is at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne; Ercolani is at the University of Essex; and Treble is at the University of Wales, Bangor, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2DG.

Professor John Treble