UK’s ‘sickie’ culture could be the fault of employers

Following a report highlighting the 35 million days UK workers falsely take off as sick days, business commentators have questioned whether the problem lies with employers themselves.

Stephen Bevan, managing director of The Work Foundation, told Personnel Today: “One problem we have is about declining job quality. In Britain, workers find their jobs less interesting and less fulfilling than 10 years ago. Employers have been trying to do more with less for a while now. They are aware of the principle of ensuring that jobs are fulfilling, but find it hard to find a business case for it. They are paying less attention to keeping people happy, because, in the current climate, if someone leaves, there will be another employee to take their place.”

Ben Wilmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agreed: “Over the last year, job satisfaction has deteriorated significantly over all sectors. There are some toxic conditions created by the economic downturn. In many cases, it’s in the employers’ interests to provide work-life balance as part of their approach to supporting attendance. Workers that have more flexible working take less time off sick – genuinely or otherwise.”

Bevan also pointed out the blurring boundary between genuine sickness and not being able to cope. “Headlines like this like to pander to the idea people are playing the system. We certainly haven’t found a pandemic of malingering. It’s not down to people just being feckless.”

A spokesman from the British Chamber of Commerce, which recently launched the Health for Work Adviceline with the NHS to respond to staff illness as well as work-related mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression, said the question of sickies was “an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s partly down to the employee and partly down to the employer to make the workplace somewhere that people want to be”.

Bevan said: “With the more complex issues, [HR managers] should also consider getting help from occupational health professionals and GPs and should try and nip it in the bud without reinforcing the presumption of guilt.”

Wilmott highlighted the importance of good line management. “Managers need training in people management,” he said. “Many are promoted because they’ve got a technical skill but it’s about managing the individual and using common sense, honesty and communication.”

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