How lazy are public sector workers?

Stuff has the data:

Figures from the State Services Commission show government employees took an average of 7.6 sick days in 2012.

No official figures are kept for private sector sick leave, but an Employers and Manufacturers Association survey suggests the average could be as low as 3.7 days a year.

The discrepancy of nearly four days between public and private sector workers could be explained by a more relaxed public “workplace culture”, [Association employment services manager David Lowe said] said.

“There is an impression that the workplace culture in the public sector might not be as focused as in the private sector.”

So there is no comprehensive data on the private sector, which means that the numbers may well be incomparable, depending on the composition of the sample and nature of the survey. Even if we believe the difference is significant, there could be lots of reasons for it. It may be that public sector jobs are more dangerous, or just more stressful, which causes more sick days. It may be that the intense restructuring and job losses in the public sector have caused people to become disengaged with their organisation and take more sick days. It could be that private sector employees are paid more and public sector employees are compensated slightly with the perk of more lenient treatment of sick days.

There are plenty more reasons for the possible difference, but there’s no way that we can discern anything about the laziness of public sector workers from these numbers alone. Not without a healthy shot of prejudice, anyway.

6 replies
  1. billbennett
    billbennett says:

    It could be as simple as public servants being more likely to do the sickness paperwork. Which brings in another stereotype 🙂

    When I managed large teams of people I’d let one day of sickness go without reporting it because, frankly, the paperwork was such a PITA. I know many other managers do the same.

  2. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    Do we have any particular reason to believe that public sector jobs are

    1) More dangerous (unlikely except for fire, police and the like)

    2) Stressful (unlikely on average, or at least I’d bet against it)

    3) More subject to reorganisation and change (perhaps nominally, but I’d bet against it in real terms, pretty heavily.)

    I’d put money on your fourth explanation, except for that the public sector in New Zealand is paid MORE!

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      I’m only pointing out that there are many other plausible hypotheses that explain the difference, other than laziness. I don’t think they’re all equally likely! Nonetheless…

      1) In terms of contracting illness the staff of hospitals, if they’re included, perhaps. Maybe the constant contact with others among frontline staff. Maybe even the culture of constant meetings allowing disease to spread more easily among deparments in Wellington!
      2) I don’t know of any way to compare and I probably wouldn’t bet either way.
      3) Of late there have been huge upheavals and very little job security in public sector agencies. I don’t know if that would be different, on average, to the private sector. Obviously, there is greater turnover of businesses in the private sector, but primarily among small firms, which affects few employees.
      4) Interesting paper, thanks.

  3. Daniel J. Taylor
    Daniel J. Taylor says:

    Great post James. Yes. I agree with Matt. It sounds like lazy journalism. Always making huge sweeping assumptions based on spurious (at best) data and then reporting them like objective truths (probably in order to get a rise out of some down in Wellington).

  4. Richard Yossarian
    Richard Yossarian says:

    I suspect the main reasons are workplace composition (mostly white collar, all the cleaners and burger flippers contracted out in the 80s – more older people with children) and no SMEs (if you have a day off there’s someone to cover for you).

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