Author Mark Richards

We are taking less time off work due to illness: but there are some worrying trends developing…

We all have our pet hates – and here is one of mine. I hate catching a cold – and knowing I caught it because the person who served me in the corner shop had such an illness that he should have been at home.

…But, increasingly, British workers are going into the shop, office or factory when maybe they should be at home. Contrary to the popular myth of the “sickie,” days lost to illness in the UK are falling: official figures show that just over four days were lost to sickness per UK worker last year – the lowest figure since records began.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has confirmed that 137m working days were lost last year, the equivalent of 4.3 days per worker: when records began (in 1993) the equivalent was 7.2 days per worker.

What caused the time off?

Minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds, accounted for almost a quarter of all time off: back and neck pain were also high on the list, as were stress, depression and anxiety. These conditions had UK workers near the top of the ‘International Sickness League’ – but not right at the top: that dubious honour went to Australia.

Who takes most time off?

Breaking the ONS numbers down showed some interesting variations:

  • People in Wales and Scotland had the most time off, at 2.6% and 2.5% of their total days respectively: workers in London took the least time off, at 1.4%
  • The sickness rate was higher in the public sector (2.9%) than the 1.7% recorded in the private sector
  • Employees had more time off than the self-employed, with a rate of 2.1% compared to 1.4%
  • And unsurprisingly, smokers (2.5%) had a higher absence rate than non-smokers (1.6%).

ONS statistician Brendan Freeman commented,

“Since 2003, there has been a fairly steady decline in the number of working days lost, especially during the economic downturn.”

Does this suggest that British workers are increasingly worried about losing their jobs if they do not struggle into work? TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady certainly seemed to suggest as much:

“It is a myth that UK workers are always throwing sickies. We are really a nation of mucus troopers, with people more likely to go to work when ill than stay at home when well.”

Leaving aside the expression ‘mucus trooper’, Frances O’Grady could have a point. Is the UK starting to follow the example of the USA, a country that is legendary – or notorious – for its culture of long working hours?

Is anyone ever sick in the US?

Anyone who watched the coverage of the US election will remember Hillary Clinton showing up at 9/11 commemoration ceremony despite being diagnosed with pneumonia the previous day. But in doing that, she was only doing what millions of American workers do every day – attempting to ‘power through’ an illness – irrespective of the potential cost to their health.

As LeaAnne DeRigne, associate professor of social work at Florida Atlantic commented, “At the very core of being American is being a hard worker.” However, she warned that the attitude now was that, “No-one’s allowed to be sick. Sickness is a weakness.”

America is one of the few developed nations that does not have guaranteed sick pay by law and for millions of American workers – especially low-paid ones – the rule is simple: if you do not show up for work you lose a day’s pay.

Does being ill at work harm productivity?

Does being at work when you are ill harm productivity?

The UK does have guaranteed sick pay, but as Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisation health at Manchester Business School, has pointed we seem to be moving to a culture where people are frightened of taking time off. We have just had a Budget where the Chancellor bemoaned the UK’s lack of productivity compared to countries like Germany and France: Professor Cooper suggests that this culture of ‘presenteeism’ – being at work when you really should be at home – was an increasing threat to the UK’s productivity.

However, there is an even more worrying trend developing – and one which may well have long-term implications for a great many of us as we move increasingly towards a ‘gig economy’ with more and more people becoming self-employed: the practice of fining someone if they do not turn up for work.

Sickness and the ‘Gig Economy’

This story was recently in the news thanks to Parcelforce fining one of their couriers – who refused to be named for fear of being blacklisted by other companies – £750 for being off sick for three days. Why? Because he had failed to find someone to cover his shift.

Parcelforce deliver packages for companies like John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Hamleys, with about a quarter of their delivery drivers being self-employed owner-drivers, typically earning £200 a day for a 12-hour shift. But the sting in the tail is that if the owner-drivers do not turn up for work – and cannot find a someone to cover for them – they must pay Parcelforce £250 per day missed. At £450 lost per day that is a very expensive bout of ’flu…

As we have written recently, the world of work is changing – and changing rapidly. The days of working for one company for the whole of your life are gone and – for most of us – they are not coming back. More of us are becoming self-employed, we are changing jobs more frequently and there is also an increasing tendency to have more than one job as more and more of us, to use the Prime Minister’s phrase, “just about manage.”

Unscrupulous employers – and companies using contractors – may well try to exploit this to boost their profits, despite it clearly not being good for either individual health or the wider public health. In 2015 the Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle blamed an outbreak of norovirus at branches in Boston and California on workers who had come in when they were ill. Maybe catching a cold at the corner shop isn’t such a problem after all…