Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology.

Our attitudes to taking sickness absence belie how hard the UK really works.

For the last few years, those in the Human Resources field have labelled the first Monday in February as “national sickie day”. Contrary to some media reports, this is not an official day of sickness recognition, or even reflective of some orchestrated facebook-campaign to take time off – it is simply based on epidemiological data collected by the office of national statistics, the confederation of British industry, the chartered institute of personal development, and the labour force survey. For the last four years this data has showed that short one-day absences from work have peaked on the first Monday in February, resulting in anything between 300,000 to 370,000 workers being absent from work on that one day. The reasons behind this peak in absences is varied, but often attributed to workers feeling they are “owed” a day or two, given that Easter is still a way off yet, and that Christmas is so far gone. It comes down to individual workers and their feelings of what they are entitled to and their own sense of responsibility. Some industries are prone to this more than others, with the public sector usually having greater sickness absence rates than the private one, and this also relates to the single-day figures too.

Our attitudes to taking sickness absence provide a great snapshot of UK workers and our feelings about work. It also provides us with an ability to examine the UK position in the labour market and reflect on how much effort the average UK worker gives. We still have more people in full time employment than other EU countries; fewer people in part time work; more workers engaged in paid overtime work, and perhaps most concerning of all, we take on more unpaid overtime work than workers in other EU countries. For this reason alone some think we should overlook the occasional sick day, but more evidence shows us that workers have rarely had it so bad. If anything, we have a problem with “presenteeism” in the UK – with many organisations not yet realising that the office / workplace is the place where people don’t actually get work done. Indeed the TUC run an annual campaign for workers to “work to time” for one day of the year, and to shun the unpaid overtime that many professionals engage in that has become the norm. In the UK even the lunchtime break has been reduced to a 23-minute sandwich-at-the desk for many workers. On average, UK workers get a total of 22 days of annual leave as well as a few public holidays. Only last week the UK government were reported to be considering dropping the traditional May Day bank holiday – a public holiday observed around much of the world and acknowledged as “International day of the Worker”. If this bank holiday goes from the UK it will herald a new low in how little the working man and woman is regarded and valued.

On average just under 3% of UK workers take a single day of sickness absence per year, and these days are usually spread evenly across the week. The idea of sickie Mondays and Fridays is not reflected in statistics. Interestingly, females take slightly more sickness than males, and it is greatest in workers below their mid-thirties. Some experts suggest that the economic downturn may reverse this trend of the one-day sickie, and that job insecurity may prevent workers from taking unnecessary time off. Other experts disagree and suggest that there is an increased likelihood of taking sickles if our job is precarious, as a form of social protest.

Despite the “sickie” news stories, the cost to the UK economy of one-day absences when workers feel they need a “duvet day” is insignificant compared with the costs involved in treating seven million sickness days taken by the hundreds of thousands of workers with cases of occupational disease and work-related Ill-health brought about by doing dangerous, difficult and unpleasant jobs. In some respects we should consider ourselves lucky that people turn up to work at all.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University