Six out of 10 employers believe staff are pulling a fast one
over the number of sick days they take, a recent survey by
employment law firm Peninsula found.
It highlights the perception of a malingering culture in the UK,
a view reinforced by the government’s drive to reduce the number of
people out of work long term and on incapacity benefit.
Social care professionals – and social workers in particular –
record some of the highest absenteeism figures of any sector.
In 2003-4 a study by the Employers’ Organisation found that
social services staff at metropolitan councils took 17.6 sick days
a year on average. Domiciliary care staff had the highest
absenteeism rate, at 21 days a year, while social workers had one
of the lowest at 13 days.
The survey shows there are two major causes of absenteeism in
social services. The biggest is back problems, which partly
explains the higher rates among domiciliary care workers. The
second is stress, which accounts for a quarter of time off. There
are more work days lost to stress than were to strikes in 1979’s
winter of discontent.
David Wainwright, senior lecturer at the centre for health
services studies at the University of Kent, says because stress is
difficult to define medically it is used to support the malingering
“We have more hard-to-define illness with vague symptoms which
appear to have no evidence of physical illness,” he says. “Some
people think these are social or psychological problems but it
doesn’t mean they are any less real for the sufferer.”
Tony Garthwaite, social services director at Bridgend and chair
of the workforce group of the Association of Directors of Social
Services Wales, said vacancy rates and increased expectations on
professionals and services affect sickness levels. But he believed
effective management could address this.
He said: “The unsympathetic employer who says ‘hard luck’ when
something is wrong is inviting that person to go sick. The good
employer will be flexible with workloads and time.”
Perhaps the example set by Tesco could provide the answer. When
the supermarket chain began rewarding employees who took the fewest
sick days levels of sick leave fell.