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Wednesday, 2 May, 2001, 12:13 GMT 13:13 UK
Ill wind blowing for the sickie

Wednesday is World Phone in Sick Day. But while throwing a sickie might sound harmless enough, employers are starting to crack down on false absenteeism, writes BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

"Workers of the world unite" was the rallying call of that founder of modern communism, Karl Marx.

Failing that, stay in bed, might be the response of those who still hold his ideals close to their hearts.

Karl Marx
"Forty winks? That's no way to start a revolution"
Wednesday is World Phone in Sick Day - a day dedicated to helping undermine global capitalism while giving hard-pressed workers a lie-in.

It is, in effect, an attempt to legitimise the "sickie".

But anyone who has signed up to this peculiar brand of labour protest should ponder the fact that tomorrow they may no longer have a job to go absent from.

In an economic climate which now kneels at the altar of improved productivity, the sickie is, appropriately enough, in poor health. And those who partake can expect little sympathy from their bosses.

True that one third of all sickness absence still has nothing do with ill health, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Sick stuff
Most common causes of sickness absence are minor complaints such as colds or headaches.
In some industries, eg. agriculture and textiles, employers estimate half of all sickness absence is not the result of illness.
But the number of days we have off sick has been in decline for some years.

According to the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) annual report on absenteeism last year, the average worker takes 7.8 days sick leave a year. That was down from 8.5 days in the previous year and 12.1 days in 1989.

However, there are still wide variations between job sectors, manual and non-manual workers and public and private companies.

Among the worst examples are Birmingham City Council, where staff are absent for an average of 19.1 days a year; South West Trains, 15 days a year; and prison guards, who average 14 days sick leave a year.

Laid low

Sectors with the lowest levels of absence include finance, utilities and construction, according to research by the CIPD.

Finance worker
It may be stressful, but finance workers are not a sickly bunch
Finance workers lose an average of 3.1% of their working time to sick leave, which, given an average of 20 days paid holiday a year, amounts to about seven days a year. By the same method of calculation, London Underground staff average about 18 days absent a year.

But the cost of absenteeism, which the CIPD estimates to be 13bn a year, is making some employers think again about how to cut down on the sickie culture.

"Dealing with sickness absences is the single most tricky recurring issue for our clients," says employment lawyer Michael Burd.

"Sickies are very hard to deal with because it's so hard to prove. If someone is off work for a day they don't need a doctor's note.

Cash incentives

"The problem is that most employers have no other means for dealing with it other than their standard disciplinary procedures."

"I'll spend my 100 bonus on some more handkerchiefs"
Some companies have started to take a more innovative approach. At the Marsden Building Society, staff can earn a 100 bonus if they have a clean record of attendance.

The scheme, which has been running for five years, has "definitely been helpful" in cutting absenteeism, says spokesman Rob Pheasey.

But employment rights campaigners argue such a scheme unfairly penalises those who are genuinely ill and encourages sickly staff to struggle in regardless of whether it's good for their health.

This week, the Prison Service unveiled its new weapon in fighting sickness levels - the Bradford Formula. The complicated method works by multiplying the frequency of periods of absence by the total number of days absent, to highlight staff who are abusing the system.

Supermarket sickness

Supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda have pioneered a more subtle approach, designed to accommodate staff demands and cut costs.

Prison officer
Prison officers have unusually high levels of absenteeism
The country's largest private sector employer, Tesco identified a grey area in staff absenteeism where employees were calling in sick for domestic or family reasons - a sick child, for example.

Under new procedures, staff who phone in sick are put through to someone who is trained in managing absence rather than just a colleague or supervisor.

On their return, they must go through a short interview with a store manager and, if the absence was not down to illness, they have the chance to treat that time as holiday or unpaid leave, or to offset it against overtime.

The company says the new procedures help cut absenteeism from 5.8% to 4.6%.

Michael Burd congratulates Tesco on taking the issue outside the realms of normal disciplinary procedure.

"It's all about productivity," he says. "They're not doing it out of pure enlightenment, but it seems to be working."

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