Business Voice, July 2004
Business Voice, July 2004
The CBI estimates 15 per cent of working days lost through sick leave are faked. There was a fuss when Tesco recently announced it would stop paying wages for the first three days of work. It is interesting the trade unions have not objected to this proposal. They appreciate Britain has a real problem with this. Hoe have we developed this ‘duvet day’ culture?
The education system has got a lot to do with it. In the old days children had the work ethic drilled into them. There was no way days could be taken off school without genuine explanation. Under no circumstances would family holidays be taken during term time. The parents would be reprimanded by the teachers and other children would regard the culprits as cheats. Home work was taken seriously and altogether, values of obligation, self-sacrifice and a sense of duty were installed into the country’s future employees.
But how today’s world is different. Children take days off school but the truancy rates are low. Another case of how the statistics can be manipulated to produce ‘improved performance’. At a nearby school, there is always a bunch of kids outside the back gate at 9.30 in the morning. They have signed in and then walked out. The head teacher is happy. Attendance targets are met. Teachers are pleased because they don’t have to look after de-motivated pupils. And of course, the kids themselves are dead pleased. It all adds up to colluded cheating that gets transferred to the workplace when the children leave school. Worse than this, many parents regard school teachers as ‘the enemy’. Instead of giving them support in coping with their children’s bad behaviour, they hurl verbal abuse and harassment.
The media has also contributed to the breakdown of our traditional work ethic. Of course most media companies are made up of people who are there because they did not want to work in business. For them, industry and wealth creating jobs are boring and are seen not to offer ‘fun. The outcome is TV, radio and press that on the whole, derides business, entrepreneurs and the whole wealth creation process. Take a listen to Radio One and the values conveyed are essentially anti –work, hedonistic and ‘don’t care about a thing’. If you feel a bit under the weather, then take the day off. If this lets down colleagues and your boss, well that’s their problem.
Changing life styles is another factor. Bing drinking among young men and women is on the increase and leads to days taken off work. There are not many weeks when there is not an excuse to celebrate something and for there to be a reason to get excessively drunk. Birthdays, anniversaries, leaving parties, England winning/losing in international matches are all considered to be good reasons for getting drunk and rendering men and women incapable of going to work the next day.
The welfare state has undoubtedly eroded the work ethic. One of the reasons why unemployment levels are low in some regions is because of benefit fraud and people being registered as ‘economically inactive’ and therefore unavailable for work. It is interesting that in the Information Age with a declining industrial base, that disability rates continue to increase. Is employment in supermarkets, offices and call centres so much more dangerous than working in steel mills, coal mines and ship yards?
It means that young people have anti-work role models encouraged by parents, neighbours and friends who do their best to ‘get away with it’. It means that the key decision for many people is about which is the best strategy to adopt to achieve this goal. Taking days off work for allegedly sick reasons is one of these.
It is probably the one that causes the most disruption for employers, line managers and colleagues. It means that work schedules get disrupted and customers are often greatly inconvenienced. For instance, we wait longer in call centre queues. It is selfish behaviour of the most extreme kind. But more than this, it creates resentment and lowers morale among whole categories of employees. The majority that are, in fact, dedicated and committed, feel they abused and taken for granted. ‘Why should they be allowed to get away with it?’ is a common response. The fact they do is usually a reflection of either weak management or local skill shortages or both because the latter so often produces the former.
On the other hand unjustified days off work can have a contagious outcome. ‘If they can get away with it, then why shouldn’t I?’ And so a ‘duvet day’ culture emerges that is then difficult to destroy. The manager brought in to sort things out is vulnerable to charges of ‘bullying’ and harassment that most of s would prefer to avoid. Anyway, it is all too common that the line manager who does try to take the necessary action fails to get the full support and backing of the bosses higher up.
So what can companies do to tackle these ‘sickie’ days off? One is to adopt the Tesco approach, to be firm and to not pay the wages. The claim this will lead employers to force genuinely sick people to come to work is plain nonsense. Managers and colleagues always know who is trying to pull a fast one. We all have track records as employees and we all know who is and is not genuinely committed to the good of the business. For myself, I can already predict which colleagues will go down with the flu next winter. I can even predict which of my colleagues’ children will fall ill next winter!
But the major challenge for UK plc is to break down this work shy culture, which brings us back to the well known arguments about the need for tougher management and more effective leadership skills that rewards and recognises the performance of our dedicated colleagues instead of taking them for granted.
© Professor Richard Scase