Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Guilt at Being Sick

This is another posting inspired by an article I have read but it goes to something that many of us living in the UK and probably many other countries have experienced. The portrayal of the average UK worker by employers in whatever media they are asked to comment is that we are lazy and that we are always trying to get out of work. Every year it is reported how much money is lost through UK workers having bank holidays (despite the fact that we have 5 fewere per year than the next nearest country) and how we will not work long hours (though the UK is the only EU country that has been exempted from the Working Time Directive restricting workers to 48 hours work per week) and so despite working longer than elsewhere we are made to feel guilty that we are somehow weakening the British economy. There is never any reference to how little work bosses do or how their high salaries and bonuses eat up far more profits than the few bank holidays that workers get in the UK.

The new focus is on sick leave. The Health Secretary Alan Johnson wants to stamp out the 'sick-note culture' in this urge to make us all work harder or pay the price. It is stated that apparently there are 175 million sick days taken each year (about 7 per person of working age) costing the country £13 billion (compared to the £5 billion it is spending on identity cards, though how they calculate this loss from missed work days is never revealed and there is no consideration that many of us make up the work we have missed by being off sick). Apparently the DVLA, the motor vehicle licensing authority says on average its workers take 11 sick days per year and they are seeking to clamp down on it.

Nowhere does anyone seem to look at this issue with anything except the sense that everyone is faking illness to get free time of work and it is something they should be stopped from doing. No-one looks at how inhospitable many workplaces are where bullying is very common and the prospects for a decent salary and promotion are limited or non-existent. No-one takes into account that many sick days are taken when parents are actually not sick but have to stay home to look after their ill children especially these days when schools are loath to have anyone exhibiting signs of (or being suspected of having been in contact with) illness. No-one analyses how stressful workplaces are in the UK where so many of us on short-term contracts are fearful of slipping up and losing our jobs. In addition, in an environment where the bulk of us feel compelled to keep on working while still ill or get back to work as soon as we can, no-one considers how many infections we pick up from our fellow workers who should be at home.

There are lazy people in the UK, but the bulk of the population is keen to work a decent day for a decent wage. We know that employers look askance at us if we reveal that we have had more than 2 sick days off within the past 2 years (the usual maximum permitted in the UK before questions are asked), so we try to keep ill-health to a minimum. We even try to keep the ill-health of our children to a minimum so as not to affect our jobs. Yet, this is not enough and employers seem to have a free hand to accuse us all of being malingerers when so many of them have poor attendance and slide off to pay golf. In the UK you have to accept that you will work longer than people across the English Channel, in poorer conditions and at lower wages and yet you should be so grateful for the job you have and never dare to be ill. Ironically if employers finally moved away from this 'master-and-servant' criticising and hostile attitude to the workforce and recognise that 'life happens' in fact they would find poor attendance would fall. Bullying workers and making them fill guilty worsens how people feel and brings sick people back to work to contaminate the rest. Vomiting sicknesses like Novovirus are rife in British society at present and are spread easily when sick people return to work alongside tired, stressed colleagues. Of course, British employers have no desire to invest in their staff just in flogging what they can out of them and to make them feel guilty that they are not grateful for that flogging. If the UK economy is ever going to survive in the 21st century it needs to change from the sickness guilt trip.

P.P. Since writing this I read that in France sick leave days come out of your holiday allowance and if you take off 3 days in a single month your salary is reduced to 85%. To me this seems harsh and encouraging the kind of problems I have noted in the UK example. The issue in the UK though is that pay is so low compared to a rapidly rising cost of living (fuel up 20p per litre (23%) in 12 months, utility costs rising at 11-15% per year, house prices rising at anything from 2%-48% depending on what area you live in but salaries rising at 1.5-3%) losing such pay would raise repossessions. In addition, the working week is shorter, the lunch break longer (often 2 hours still in France compared to the average of 23 minutes in the UK) and they receive more holidays (not least bank holidays) and retire at 60 rather than 65. The trouble with the UK is that it might be less regulatory in some things but it offers so much less to its employees in the first place.

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