Small growth in sickness absence in 2003

Preliminary data for 2003, issued in January 2004, indicate a slight increase in sickness absence among Austrian employees, following some years of decline. The causes are not yet clear, and the issue is one of some disagreement between the social partners.

Estimates released by the Association of Social Security Providers (Hauptverband der Sozialversicherungsträger, HSV) at the end of January 2004 indicate a small growth in the average amount of sickness absence among Austrian employees in 2003. According to these preliminary data, the average number of days of sickness absence from work per employee stood at between 13.0 and 13.1 in 2003, up from an average of 12.9 days in 2002. Similarly, the average duration of sickness absence per case increased slightly, from 12.2 in 2002 to 12.3 days in 2003. Moreover, the total of days of sick leave grew from 36.4 million in 2002 to an estimated 36.7 million in 2003. However, this corresponded approximately to the increase in the total number of employees over this period. These figures refer to all employees in Austria except for railway employees and career public servants (Beamte), thus covering about 2.8 million workers.

Despite the slight increase in sickness absence in 2003 in comparison with the year before, experts disagree on whether these data mark a turning point following a continuous gradual decline in the average duration of sickness absence recorded from 1999 to 2002. Over a longer term, the average annual duration of sick leave fell from 15.2 days in 1990 to 12.9 days in 2002. Peaks were recorded in 1957 (when statistics were introduced) at 17.6 days and in 1980 at 17.4 days, when the labour market was very tight.

According to Alois Guger, an expert at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (Österreichisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, WIFO), the incidence of sickness absence is positively correlated with GDP growth rates and favourable labour market conditions (ie a low rate of unemployment) over a longer reference period. In recent years, a relatively high rate of unemployment (ie 4.4% in 2003) has resulted in increasing pressure on employees to go to work even if they are ill, Mr Guger suggests. This view is supported not only by trade unions, which have always attributed the decline in sickness absence to deteriorating labour market conditions (AT9904141N), but also by a number of doctors who, during an influenza outbreak in January 2004, stated that a growing number of employees were not taking sick leave for fear of possibly losing their job. In particular, this was said to be true of the private service sector and the construction industry, where unemployment rates have been especially high, as Mr Guger points out.

Employers, on the other hand, argue that some employees still take time off work on the pretext of being ill. The decline in sickness absence recorded during previous years is seen as proof of large-scale sickness absence abuses in the past, since the current sick leave figures indicate an average level of performance in international comparative terms.

The official HSV data for 2003 will be presented in late spring 2004 at the earliest. The causes for the slight increase in sickness absence in comparison with 2002 (if the final figures confirm the estimate) can then be analysed. It remains to be seen whether the small growth in sickness absence was prompted by 'external' factors (such as more frequent influenza outbreaks in 2003), or whether there were some other reasons for the change.

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