July 25, 2012 • 4:27 pm

“NHS staff took 15 days off sick last year… compared with just SIX in the private sector.”

Daily Mail, 25 July 2012

“England’s one million NHS workers took an average of 15 days off sick last year.”

Daily Star, 25 July 2012

“AMBULANCE staff averaged more than FOUR WEEKS’ sick leave each last year, shock statistics revealed yesterday.”

The Sun, 25 July 2012

Yesterday the Government released statistics on sickness absence rates in the NHS. These were picked up by a number of media outlets this morning who reported that, on average, NHS workers took 15 days off last year due to illness, with ambulance staff proving particularly sickly by averaging over 22.6 days or “five times the norm for UK workers” according to The Sun.

The Daily Mail took the figures a step further, juxtaposing the NHS data with the average number of sick days taken by workers in the private sector; which they claimed stood at 6.2 days per year.

Considering the on-going debate regarding the relative merits of the public and private sectors fuelled by the G4S saga, Full Fact decided to take a closer look at the data to see if the claims were substantiated.

Analysis

The figure that the average NHS employee takes 15 sick days per year is not mentioned at all in the Government’s report. In fact, the report specifically states that “the average number of working days lost per employee is not included in this publication”, choosing to focus exclusively on the ‘sickness absence rate’.

However the data tables accompanying the report provide the ‘Full Time Equivalent Days Available (includes non-working days)’ and the ‘Full time Equivalent Days Lost to Sickness Absence’ (includes non-working days)’ for the financial year 2011-12.

From these, the NHS Information Centre (NHS IC) statisticians were able to calculate the sickness absence rate for the NHS as a whole.

Table 1: All NHS Staff

Full Time Equivalent Days Lost to Sickness Absence

(includes non-working days)

 

15,555,507

 

Full Time Equivalent Days Available (includes non-working days)

 

377,908,880

 

 

If we take the full time equivalent (FTE) days available and divide it by 365 (the number of days a year), we arrive at the figure for the number of NHS FTE employees.

Subsequently, we can divide the FTE days lost to sickness absence by the number of FTE individuals employed by the NHS to arrive at an estimate of the average number of sick days per FTE employee.

Plugging the numbers in, we get:

377,908,880 / 365 = 1,035,366.795

15,555,507 / 1,035,366.795 = 15.02 days per FTE employee.

This method should also work when we isolate professionally qualified ambulance staff from the dataset. It is worth noting that the report also has data on total ambulance staff irrespective of whether they have a professional qualification.

Table 2: Professionally qualified ambulance staff

Full Time Equivalent Days Lost to Sickness Absence

(includes non-working days)

 

404,695

 

Full Time Equivalent Days Available (includes non-working days)

 

6,551,615

 

With a bit more number crunching we get:

6,551,515 / 365 = 17,949.63014

404,695 / 17,949.63014 = 22.6 days per FTE employee to one decimal place, as The Sun claim. 

To be sure these methods were sound, Full Fact contacted the NHS IC to check if the newspapers’s claims were fair given the data available.

Unfortunately, they were not in a position to comment on how the figures were arrived at, but agree that our suggested methodology was ‘a strong possibility’. With this in mind, we were advised that the figures published in the papers were indeed acceptable derivations as long as the distinction between FTE numbers and NHS employees (i.e. a pure headcount) was appreciated.

Is 22.6 days per year five times the national average?

The Sun does not offer the source from which the national average number of sick days per year was derived.

However the Office for National Statistics publishes this figure annually which, in 2011, was 4.5 days per year.

As such, if we are satisfied that 22.6 is a reasonable estimate for the annual days missed per year by professionally qualified ambulence staff, then this is indeed fives times the national average.

However whether the data on days lost to sickness in each profession is comparable is somewhat dubious, as it is calculated in very different ways. For a rundown of the impact this has on the conclusions that can be drawn, check out our article on the topic here.

What about the private sector?

The Daily Mail compared the figure of 15 days per year taken by NHS staff to the average number sick days taken in the private sector – which they claim to be 6.2.

The source of this claim is an independent study conducted by XpertHR using a sample of 343 organisations associated with the organisation.

We contacted XpertHR who informed us that the statistic referred to the average number of sick days reported by the 206 ‘private sector services’ organisations (6.25 to be precise) who responded to their survey. It is worth noting though that some of the data had to be ‘harmonised’ from data on the percentage of total working time missed through illness reported by the companies.      

XpertHR were keen to stress that figure referred exclusively to ‘private sector services’ and thus it would be inaccurate to claim that it represented the private sector as a whole as it did not include manufacturing and production companies which were handled separately. Including these companies might have changed the average which they calculated.

So are the statistics comparable?

It’s always worth taking caution when comparing statistics derived from multiple places. In this case, the two sources were remarkably different, both in terms of their sample and their methodology from which the final figure was established.

Considering that XpertHR’s data was derived from a reasonably small sample which was neither random, nor particularly stratified, it seems inappropriate to juxtapose it with the NHS IC’s data.

The ONS do, however, include in their report that, for 2011, 2.6 per cent of hours were lost due to sickness in the public sector while only 1.6 per cent was lost in the private sector. 

Conclusion

The claim that NHS staff took, on average, 15 days off sick last year is correct providing it is understood as an estimate based on full-time equivalent days. The same is true for the claim regarding professionally qualified ambulance staff. 

However, the Daily Mail’s comparison between the NHS IC’s findings with those of XpertHR on days lost to sickness for the ‘private sector’ as a whole runs into problems as these studies differ too greatly to make a comparison reliable or particularly useful.

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