We look at the complex issue of illness in the workplace

PRESENT TENSE: Bringing illness to work isn't good for employers or employees alike.

HAVE you ever pulled a sickie? If so, you’re not the only one. 

According to research carried out by the Small Firms Association (SFA) in 2014, 4,052,222 days of work were lost that year because of sick leave. 

This resulted in a direct loss of more than €490 million in revenue.

What’s behind all these sick days? 

Is it the two to five colds that the average Irish person gets a year? Or could it be the flu? 

Up to 20% of us get the flu every year and it can knock even the hardiest of us out for a week.

Neither of these is the answer. The significant majority of sick leave is down to musculoskeletal problems and mental health issues.

On one given week in February 2015, 14.2% of those on sick leave had back, neck, rib or disc pain. 

12.97% had anxiety or depression and another 7.41% were suffering with stress.

When it comes to sick leave, employees should be aware of their rights and responsibilities. 

They should know that the law does not require employers to pay employees who are out sick. This is left to the employer’s discretion. 

Your written statement of employment should state what your employer’s particular policy is.

Employees should also realise that extended periods of sick leave (usually more than two consecutive days) require a medical certificate. 

These can be issued by hospital doctors or GPs and must state that you are not fit for work. They should also state when you are likely to be able to return.

In some cases, GPs may suggest changes that could be made to facilitate that return; such as doing some work from home or swapping some duties with a colleague.

“Most GPs are only too aware that the longer someone’s off sick, the harder it is to get back to work,” says Dr John Chisholm, an expert in health.

“Worklessness comes at great personal, financial and social cost so GPs will make a judgement as to what’s in their patient’s best interests.”

Changes that have been made to work practices in relation to sick leave in recent years seem to be working. 

Absentee rates have fallen every year for the past decade. So much so that now the opposite problem is emerging.

Presenteeism is when people turn up for work even when they are sick. 

The Aviva Workplace Health Index surveyed 350 business managers and owners and found that one third identified presenteeism as a health concern for their business.

It causes problems all of its own.

“If someone has a cold, do you really want them coming in when they’re not well,” asks Dr Chisholm. 

“They’re not going to perform properly and they’re going to spread germs all over the office.”

Recent US research found that presenteeism can cost a business up to three times as much as employees who ring in sick.

These ongoing problems with absenteeism and presenteeism are forcing employees to face up to the fact that it’s time for them to look after their employees’ health.

Responding to the Aviva Workplace Index, Mary Connaughton, head of human resource development in IBEC, said: “The tough economic climate means companies need to get the most from their staff if they are to survive and stay in business. 

"But this needs to be done in the right way. A healthy workforce is in everyone’s interest.”


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