Symptom of insecurity

The clampdown on 'sickie' absenteeism by some employers will harm staff relations.

by Richard Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Breaking news ... 'Millions of extra hours are being lost by UK organisations through the carrying out of "unwarranted" and unscientific studies on absence through sickness. Polling over 10 concerned mates, the LDLS - the voice of British Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics - has found that few organisations are even monitoring the growing problem of employees "pulling a survey" and wasting organisational resources.'

OK, apologies to the CBI. The real version is available on this august organisation's attractive and useful website, Along with Axa - out to flog health insurance - the Confederation contacted 'over 500' of the UK's organisations and got headlines with figures suggesting that sickness absence had risen by 6% to 7.2 days per employee a year; that three out of four companies suspect employees of taking 'unwarranted' long weekends by calling in sick on Fridays or Mondays; and that 15% of sickness absence is thought - by the employers who completed the survey - to be non-genuine.

Following hard on the heels of Tesco's much-lauded plan to withhold pay for the first three days of sickness, the CBI/Axa salvo suggests that the traditional British sickie is under threat.

Of course, this is a long-running battle: in the early stages of the industrial revolution, employers were infuriated by the continued homage that workers paid to 'Saint Monday' - ie, for recovery from a weekend of excess. In pre-industrial life, all that mattered was that the work got done - the harvest collected, clothes woven or furniture made - not that it started to get done at 8am on a Monday morning. As Joanne Ciulla, an American writer on the history of work, puts it: 'Life in pre-industrial days was a bit like the life of a college student - irregular eating and sleeping, intermingled with intense drinking and partying, and all-night work sessions.'

Actually, this is not a bad description of work in plenty of post-industrial occupations too - and not just advertising. Increasing numbers of jobs are based on output, rather than physical attendance. In terms of sickness absence, this means that the figures quoted by the CBI and others are almost meaningless. If an accountant is ill, all her accounts will still be waiting for her when she returns, meaning that she'll have to work harder once she's better. It is hard to see the loss to business here.

For any job in which workload is undiminished by absence, 'pulling a sickie' is just a form of flexible working - and if genuinely flexible working was on offer, would be entirely unnecessary.

Now there are clearly some jobs where attendance is critical to performance, including many in the service sector, and where a different approach might be required. Tesco's plan, an attempt to penalise those pulling sickies as opposed to those who are genuinely ill, has won the conditional support of the union Usdaw as well as that of other progressive organisations. These endorsements are surprising, given that it is an outrageous removal of a hard-won, fundamental employment right.

Of course, the abuse of trust represented by the taking of unjustified sick leave is a problem, but not one that is best solved by removing the right to paid sick leave from everybody else. If it is true that 15% of sick leave is non-genuine, and that Tesco's workers are typical, the move means that 38,250 employees will henceforth be impoverished as a result of real illness - and it is not as if they are handsomely paid in the first place. As soon as organisations start managing for the untrustworthy minority, there is no end in sight.

How do we know that people who use carer leave to cover childcare emergencies actually experience one? Or that the partner of a man taking paternity leave has actually had a child? Do we check that someone taking compassionate leave to attend a funeral actually shows up at the crematorium? Any system designed to offer employment protection will be abused by a minority; all we can do is reduce that minority without hurting the majority.

But because there are a few culprits, the Tesco board has turned the sound management principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' on its head.

Two further issues are clouded in the febrile debate about sickness absence.

The first is the number of people who continue to work even when they are unwell. Plenty of over-the-counter drugs are advertised on the basis that mere flu shouldn't keep us from the company compound. Offices are full of people who by rights could and often should be under the duvet. But no-one produces a survey showing how much these people add to the country's economic output.

Second, it is long-term sickness that is the real issue, not the odd sickie. Two-thirds of the costs of sickness absence come from long-term health problems, with much of the growth now accounted for by mental illness - in some cases brought on by a stressful work environment.

The CBI and other employers' organisations are using dubious, impressionistic research to make hugely over-stated claims about the depth of the problem of sickness absence. The media are lapping it up. And otherwise sound employers like Tesco are responding in ways that set employment protection back by decades. In short, it looks like a bout of hysteria. I prescribe a few days' bed rest.

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