The Royal Mail is offering postmen and women the chance to win cars and holiday vouchers in a scheme to cut high rates of absenteeism.

Workers who do not take a single day off sick between now and January 31 will be entered into a prize draw and could win one of 34 Ford Focuses or 68 holiday vouchers worth £2,000. It is also offering 12 weekend breaks to workers who have good attendance records and who are nominated by managers.

A spokesman admitted that the Royal Mail had high rates of absenteeism and said it was hoped the incentives would tackle a problem which cost the company several million pounds a year.

At any one time, 10,000 staff - or 6.5 per cent of a total workforce of 170,000 - are absent and the average Royal Mail worker is off sick for 12 days every year, compared with a national average of seven.

"We're saying we have got a problem with absenteeism, we want to tackle it and the way we're trying is with a carrot approach," the Royal Mail spokesman said.

"We think the costs of the scheme will be recovered and we think this will help."

He said the company was also setting up a scheme of standards for dealing with absenteeism, in collaboration with unions.

The deputy secretary of the Communication Workers Union, Dave Ward, dismissed the scheme as a gimmick and said it would not solve the industry's morale problems.

He said: "Royal Mail needs to be honest. It needs to admit it has serious problems.

"Gimmicks won't offer a solution to low morale and stress levels resulting from the physical demands of the job and regimented management styles."

He said the Royal Mail should work with staff to see how job satisfaction could be improved.

The Conferation of British Industry said absence from work was a growing problem across a range of companies and organisations, and cost business £11.6bn last year.

A spokesman said it was believed that up to 25 million days were lost last year due to staff taking bogus sick days, which accounted for 15 per cent of all absences.