Friday, 16 September 2016

Sick

Today’s post is prompted by the story this week that Hillary Clinton has had to take time off from campaigning because she has pneumonia. In fact, she only took four days off – which, frankly, seems very little to recover from pneumonia - but this has been seized on by her political opponents as evidence that she is not up to the job of US President.

Although the political reasons for this are obvious, it seems to me to fit with a wider issue of the way that in the UK, at least, going off sick is frowned upon, and worse. It can be taken as a sign of unreliability and lack of commitment. The Sports Direct scandal revealed exactly this, with sick leave being counted against workers, who as a result were too scared to take it. But that case is the tip of a much larger iceberg. A 2015 survey found that one in four British workers were too afraid to take time off when ill, and the study suggests that they are much less likely to do so than workers in some other countries: in 2015 8.9% of British workers took more than 8 days sick leave compared with 25.3% of German workers.

If we discount the idea that the British are inherently healthier than the Germans, then it seems obvious that what is at issue is the politics and culture of work. Organizationally, it links to the more brutal management and work conditions in Britain, including the precarious employment terms discussed in my last post. Certainly self-employed workers take about half as much time off sick as those in employment.

British politicians routinely berate the public sector in particular for having higher levels of sick leave than the private sector even though both have fallen steadily for the last 20 years according to the Office for National Statistics. But Stephen Bevan of the Work Foundation and Lancaster University Management School explains that this difference (7.9 days per year in the public sector versus 5.5 days in the private sector) can easily be understood. It isn’t that public sector workers are malingerers, but a combination of the demographics, the more risky occupations and the better recording of sick leave that exist within the public sector.

In addition to this, I think that there is a very macho issue around taking sick leave. This seems evident in the debate about Hillary Clinton illness but, more generally in the sense that it is somehow ‘soft’ or ‘wimpy’ to ‘give in’ and take time off. Real men power on through it. The UK statistics bear this out, with women losing 2.6% of working hours to sickness compared with 1.6% for men (2013 figures).

It seems unlikely to me that it is any better for businesses than for individuals to work when they are sick. They are likely to be less productive, and to infect other workers. With the weather in Britain today having taken a decisive turn to autumn, we are now entering the season of coughs and colds. Personally, I find it intensely unpleasant if the people at work, in shops or on public transport are spluttering and sneezing all over me. In 1945 there was a splendidly amusing public information film (you can see it here) warning that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ and instructing people to use a handkerchief. Well, that’s fine so far as it goes, but much better for all concerned to stay off sick until you get better, and for employers to support that.

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