Waging war on the sickie may be a lost cause

On average, children miss 10 days of school a year through
illness, leaving parents with the dilemma of having to ‘throw a sickie’ in
order to care for them

As a mother of three, the Patricia Amos case captured my interest.

The children skived school and their mother was imprisoned as a consequence.
I am sure many working parents looked at their own children and wondered: are
they as virtuous as they appear?

Clearly, the Amos case is extreme, but it does force a rethink of the whole
issue of working parents and childcare.

We all know children play truant, but what is surprising is the sheer scale
of the problem in the UK. Recent research shows that 50,000 children a day skip

Frequently, my own children will try to wheedle a day off school, but I am
fortunate in that I deal with nothing more serious than a reluctance to attend
double French and the problem is resolved with a stern look.

However, for many parents, coping with work and school-age children is far
more complex.

Gordon Brown has officially launched a war on the ‘sickie’ – the CIPD claims
that staff absenteeism is costing employers £13bn a year. While this is more
likely to be triggered by the after effects of alcohol than double French, the
impact for the employer is equally serious.

Children are absent from school for 10 days a year on average, and parents
have little recourse – aside from holiday leave – to ask their employer for
time off.

My three children attend different schools, meaning my husband and I share
joint responsibility for school plays, swimming galas, sports days, etc.

With all our children over the age of five, neither of us, according to the
Department of Trade and Industry, can ask for parental leave. We have our
holiday entitlement and, fortunately for us, understanding employers.

If we did not, we would each have 25 days holiday to cover these
responsibilities, family holidays and illness.

How would we cope with the unexpected, individual day off? Probably with a

Suzanne Braun Levinne, author of Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put
Family First, conducted research with 50 American working fathers to see how
they dealt with juggling family and work life; the results were alarming.

All fathers expressed reluctance to use employers’ parental programs –
typically they would take holiday or sick days to spend time with their
children. They didn’t want to ask for parental benefits because they feared it
would make them appear less ambitious or dedicated to the job.

This is a mind-set which I believe is also prevalent in the UK. A recent
sickness absence survey revealed that family responsibilities contribute to 37
per cent of staff absences.

It shows that employers should not underestimate the relationship between
childcare responsibilities and staff absenteeism.

As a national UK workforce, we still remain some distance away from the
‘family friendly’ ideal that we strive so desperately to achieve. Only by
viewing childcare – either through vouchers or assistance – as a core benefit
within the UK market, will employers be able to say that truancy, child
sickness and school meetings have little or no impact on their bottom line.

Employers must communicate more with staff and acknowledge the childcare
dilemma. They should also recognise the problem of a working father’s
reluctance to own up to the impact of family demands on their work-life
balance. Meetings where parents can comfortably voice and discuss their
concerns should be set up and encouraged.

On top of this, employers should be creative and innovative about work
styles by introducing flexitime and childcare vouchers for both male and female

But currently, with precious few viewing childcare as little more than a
nice, soft benefit, Gordon Brown may well be fighting a losing battle as he
squares up to the sickie.

By Alison Cantle, a marketing director of Sodexho PASS

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