Judgment Day: To be Present or Absent?

Working SickI just loved the article earlier this week by Tom Utley, the well-known Daily Mail columnist. In his article Tom muses about sick leave and how he would fare on the ‘day of reckoning’ at the ‘Heavenly Audit Office’. He’s had a mere 3 days sick leave in 38 years of employment and is particularly scathing about the high sickness rates in the Public Sector. He believes there’s no harm in bringing bugs into the office and that it should definitely get him some plus points at the pearly gates. His views are completely the opposite to those of the Chancellors’ wife, Frances Osborne, she believes people should stay at home and keep the bugs to themselves when they are ill. It made me stop and consider what the costs of each of these opposing views would be to an organisation and whether one has a higher cost than the other.

Arguably, it can be said that coming in sick to work will keep absence statistics low, but whether a sick individual is going to be particularly productive, or how their colleagues will cope if a virus is passed around the office is debatable.  Also, for the majority of co-workers a cold is a minor discomfort but, for some, for example asthma sufferers or those with a compromised immune system, the consequences could be much more serious. And for some manual workers it may actually be dangerous to work when ill. Do most employees believe, as Mrs Osborne clearly does, that co-workers bringing bugs into the workplace unacceptable?

By encouraging ‘presenteeism’ do organisations run the risk of incurring higher costs of absence? The cost of one employee who is off sick for a couple of days is one thing, but viruses can affect the attendance and productivity of dozens of workers. It is clear to me that there needs to be a balance.

I believe it is really important that organisations have the tools to monitor absence accurately and that managers are trained to deal with it fairly, sympathetically uncover the reason for the “sickie” and address it. By having a clear absence policy, introducing back to work interviews if this isn’t already done, and offering flexible working where possible so that sick workers can have the choice of working from home to prevent the spread of germs can help achieve this balance.

Tom’s article did raise another contentious issue – does working in the public sector really present more exposure to bugs and viruses that cause sickness than in the private sector, or is ‘pulling a sickie’ more common practice? I think I will leave that debate for another time.


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