Work-related illness myth is spiralling out of control

In his letter ‘Met Police right to address health issues for officers’ (Personnel Today, 1 December 2009), John Holden of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health chants the mantra adopted by all of his ilk that “Work-related ill health is a major problem in the 21st century workplace… last year more than 2 million people suffered an illness they put down to work”.

The methodological flaw behind all such claims and statements is that they confuse people staying away from work because they claim they have a work-related illness, with people who are actually ill.

The reality is that vast numbers of people in the UK have been actively encouraged to learn the discourse of stress, depression and anxiety as a way of getting their GPs to sign them off work for weeks on end. Any HR practitioner will tell Mr Holden that in nine cases out of 10 where an employee is told they are facing any sort of disciplinary or capability procedure, they run to the doctor for a certificate saying ‘work-related stress’ and stay off work for several weeks, at the employer’s expense, as a way of avoiding or delaying proceedings. And there are thousands of others who take this medically certified time off just because they can. Then employers are guilt tripped into thinking that they should be taking more responsibility for what their employees eat and drink and how much exercise they do.

I agree that employers should be responsible for good management so that people want to go to work, but beyond that, the solution to reducing the 24.6 million working days being lost through absenteeism is to not buy into this ever-spiralling myth of work making people ill.

It is about having robust and consistently applied absence policies that support the genuinely sick for as long as is reasonable, while taking a zero tolerance approach to those actively being encouraged into absenteeism by the sort of rubbish pedalled by the Boorman report, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. Give us a break – most of us in HR are sick of hearing it.

Helen Giles, director of HR, Broadway

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