Employee rights in the developed world – such as standard working hours, pay rates, holiday and health entitlements – emerged from a sustained struggle of workers and their unions against the exploitative practices that were commonplace in the early 20th century.
Yet the government says it believes too many people are taking statutory sick pay – and that the right is being abused. Some 300,000 people each year fall out of work long term, ending up on benefits.
Working-age ill health overall was costed at 140 million sick days – six days off per worker – or an eye-watering £100bn by the Department of Work and Pensions’ Health at Work review in 2011. According to the same review, this costs UK businesses £9bn; how much more so if many people are not in fact genuinely ill?
Office of National Statistics figures say public sector workers seem to take twice as many sick days as those in private business – and workers in larger organisations take more than the self-employed and SMB staff.
While it confirms there are “weaknesses” in the system, the DWP review points out that UK sickness rates have in fact fallen since 2003 – remaining roughly stable through the 1990s.
Unsurprisingly, there are no official figures on how many days off are “sickies” aimed at milking entitlements.
However, John Kilbey, a business adviser at the Forum of Private Business (FPB), says that every second or third call to its helpline, which receives 20 to 30 calls a day from SMBs, is from employers worried about what they believe is abuse of sick notes.
“Usually it’s about the difficulty of removing somebody from employment who may not be as sick as he or she claims to be,” he confirms. “The issue is around the fact that doctors sign employees off at the drop of a hat.”
Kilbey says businesses complain that staff mysteriously and suddenly call in sick immediately following difficulties at work, such as disciplinary action, often citing vague and difficult-to-verify health problems such as stress or back pain.
The change to “fit notes” two years ago has made no perceptible reduction to the frequency of such complaints, he says, with the further side effect that suspicion then also falls on staff who are genuinely ill.
A government response to the DWP review in January indicates that it wants to set up a new independent system for signing off sick employees – removing the responsibility from overworked family GPs. But this hasn’t yet happened.
Culture of accountability
So is there a “sick note” culture in the channel? We asked around; the answer from Gary Downey, group marketing director at managed print services provider Balreed, was typical of most of the responses we received.
“Fortunately we don’t experience any significant sick leave from staff here. This may be partly down to us having a fairly low headcount of 160 staff, but also because we run a tight ship with a culture of accountability. It’s a tight team, so staff wouldn’t consider ‘throwing sickies’ – these tend to stick out as the exception and staff know they are letting the other members of their team down,” says Downey. “We hope to keep it that way.”
Adam Pedder, managing director of services provider Shadowfax, says in 13 years he has not had a single employee off with a sick note.
“The only explanation I have for it is I employ healthy people, give them gym membership, and have a friendly enough culture that if someone wants a day off, they feel they can ask for it instead of having to lie,” he says.
Ian Kilpatrick, chairman at security distie Wick Hill, says that even though a small minority might abuse sick leave, the rest of society should not have to be punished for it and organisations should instead look at how they manage their businesses and foster the right culture.
“Although we have had problems once or twice, we have a hard-working team and have dealt with it in a team environment,” he says.
Companies should also keep an eye on staff absences before a problem emerges – afterwards can make things more difficult. The public sector might have specific issues, Kilpatrick suggests, not least having to work in an environment where they have been targeted as wasteful and unproductive – which is bound to sap anyone’s motivation, especially if they are unwell.
“If this government spent more time actually sorting the economy instead of demonising various groups such as the sick, disabled, unwilling unemployed and so on, we might have a better economy and a more caring approach to the vulnerable,” ends Kilpatrick.
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