Thomas Telford, the 18th century civil engineer who transformed
Britain’s transport infrastructure, was a stickler for health,
safety and welfare. Absenteeism was nonetheless a constant bugbear.
Away from home and family for months on end, his workers fell prey
to stress and loneliness, reported sick and temporarily
Railway engineers George and Robert Stephenson experienced
similar problems and, like Telford, noted that weekly paydays led
to binge-drinking, hangovers, an unfit workforce and lost
production. Their attempts to impose monthly pay met huge
Telford, perhaps better than the Stephensons, understood that
people only give of their best when employers meet them at least
half way. Knowing that his own prosperity and progress depended
entirely on his workers, he respected them. Sadly, that basic law
of personnel relations is these days often ignored.
The modern world of work is in thrall to market forces, those
capricious but mighty creations which might not actually exist
outside the collective imagination. Personnel are no longer quite
human but objectified “resources”, almost like bolts of fabric or
lengths of timber. There is little long-term security for any
worker and the inherent weakness in their position allows employers
to reign with quiet terror and work them into the ground. Work and
competition always go hand in hand but the contest now is not for
promotion or recognition but to stay on the right side of the gulf
between wage and dole.
While local authority staff are partially divorced from this
cut-throat environment, the targets, star-ratings and other
pointless activities foisted on the public sector play their own
part in undermining staff well-being. In social services, chronic
understaffing and unsympathetic management are seen to add to the
ills. They are only part of the problem.
Where workers lack control over outcomes, their physical and
psychological health may degenerate. In social work, that sense of
control hinges on the client’s fate, which, given the infinite
number of possibilities, is outside anyone’s authority. It is a
lonely, often thankless job, bearing enormous responsibility and
dogged by the constant fear of failure. Most social workers
understand the nature of their task, so what is it that tips so
many over the edge?
Private sector employee benefits rarely compare with public
sector. For example, private sector workers receive only statutory
sick pay, whereas council staff with sufficient service are
eligible for six months’ full pay and six months’ half-pay. In the
face of financial disincentives, staff may baulk at taking sick
leave, irrespective of stress, misery and job dissatisfaction. But
this is not an argument for abolishing sick pay. The skills
required in the private sector are often more easily deployed. The
unhappy worker can move, but where else can social workers employ
their particular talents?
The Victorian work ethic remains powerful and the unemployed
attract contempt rather than compassion. Similarly, sympathy for
sickness absentees rapidly evaporates, for their absence increases
the burden of work and stress on colleagues already struggling to
manage their own workload. Resentment builds, alongside the
likelihood of others collapsing under the extra strain.
The absentee knows they will be missed but the longer they stay
away, the smaller their expectation of being welcomed back with
open arms. On return, work will be a less forgiving place, and that
knowledge heaps fear and guilt onto the mountain of tensions which
first induced illness.
Sickness absence demolishes any control that staff may have over
an activity crucial to their own and their family’s welfare.
Changes in the workplace, over which they are powerless, will
inevitably occur and they may go back to strange and even hostile
territory. Moreover, unless management is genuinely open and
engaged with the workforce, absentees have no way of knowing how
illness might affect their future. Will they be marginalised or
forced into retirement? The fear generated by such uncertainties
can lead to a spiralling health decline which kills off any real
Social workers need optimum working conditions to do the best
for clients. While Unison is right to call attention to staffing
levels and recruitment, this particular malady will be better cured
by radical changes in management structures and attitudes.
Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’