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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 15:14 GMT
Cost of the 'sicknote scandal'
By Marianne Lueck
BBC Money Programme

man sneezing
Are workers telling the truth when they say they are ill?

British Bosses are reporting that more and more of their staff appear to be skiving off with faked illnesses and many firms are taking new steps to crack down on malingerers.

Research by the Confederation of British Industry suggests that workplace absence is on the rise for the first time in five years. Last year we were off sick on average for 7.2 days up from 6.8 the previous year.

It costs UK businesses 11.75bn a year, the CBI says.

The CBI also estimates that 15% of all illness is due to people taking days off when they are not really ill.

Susan Anderson of the CBI tells the Money Programme that "if they look at absences they have, they find they are around Mondays and Fridays"

"They're an extension of a weekend. There's no illness that I know of that occurs only on Mondays and Fridays," she says.


Companies are keen to crack down on skiving and are trying new methods to beat the cheats.

Man blowing his nose
Working when sick can result in further ill health

Removal firm Pickfords has employed a specialist healthcare company, AHP, in an attempt to reduce absenteeism.

If Pickford's staff in London want to go sick, they must now call a trained AHP nurse instead of their boss.

As well as getting free medical advice, the company hopes to discourage skivers.

"An individual who is not actually sick but is claiming to be sick might well be deterred from having to speak to somebody who is medically trained," says Stephen Fellows, Pickfords human resources manager.

So far the scheme appears to be working and they have reduced absence by 30%.


Other tougher methods are being used to crack down on malingerers.

Drinkers in a bar
Hangovers and other drink related ailments often mean staff will not turn up

Now some firms are denying sick-pay to staff for the first three days of illness.

Tesco and Pickfords are among firms who do not pay some staff for short-term illness.

Critics say these approaches encourage people to come into work when they are genuinely sick, resulting in further ill health.

Hugh Robertson from the TUC argues that the bigger threat to business is not skiving but presenteeism.

"What our figures show is that over half of workers last year actually came into work when they felt that they weren't well enough to come in," he says.

Some staff at Pickfords admitted to the Money Programme that they worked whilst sick for fear of losing pay.

Presenteeism is such a big problem, according to experts, that it is seriously damaging the health of millions.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot from UCL has undertaken a study which identified a sub-group of workers, up to 30-40% of the population, who are not in the best of health but always struggle into work.

Of this group, those who took no time off for illness were more likely to die early.

"I think an appropriate response to being ill if you're unable to work properly would be to have the rest and recuperation that's needed," he says.

The CBI told the Money Programme that they had not undertaken any surveys on the problem of presenteeism.

Alcohol and absence

The government has pinpointed one major cause of absenteeism - alcohol.

Last year it published a report saying 17 million days are lost due to alcohol abuse.

For some, this means taking a day of with a hangover, for others it is a far more serious issue.

Chris Parkinson used to be work for BAE. He told the Money Programme how he would regularly use bogus sick notes to get time off and most days he was drinking in excess of ten pints.

"I would say drink is the main cause for people taking time off work," Mr Parkinson says.

Professor Marmot is not surprised by the figures as the average alcohol consumption in the UK has doubled over the last forty years.

"I think alcohol has been the under-recognised cause of ill-health in our community," he says.


Critics accuse the CBI of exaggerating the problem of skiving. They say that the CBI's estimate of 25 million working days lost in fact represents less than half a per cent of all working time.

The TUC argues that rather than being in the grip of a sick note scandal workers are far more prone to be in work unwell.

The CBI however says that any sick leave taken when you're not really ill is wrong, and they insist this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

The Money Programme: The sick note scandal was broadcast on Wednesday, 1 December at 1930 GMT.


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