Returning from sick early may not always be the best medicine

The concept of throwing the traditional “sickie” is something that is much talked about but seldom reflected in the statistics. Truth is, since the 1990s, sickness absence has fallen from over seven days to just over four days per employee annually.

Is it that we are fitter, healthier, more able to cope with day-to-day pressures? Well that may be true with healthier lifestyles and greater health awareness. But equally true, are the growing numbers of people who feel that they cannot take sickness leave.

Firstly, let’s take the self-employed. Devoid of the usual benefits available to employed people, the stark reality is if they don’t work they simply don’t earn. The same is also true of those who take annual leave. The self-employed often suffer from stereotypical assumptions of being well off, autonomous and with far greater freedoms than employed people. If only that were true. They frequently work in an unwaged capacity to try to attract work, often spending many hours in unpaid marketing and promotion of what it is they do.

Then there are the oppressed employed. With growing pressures on productivity, efficiency and effectiveness in both public and private sectors, it takes very little sickness to trigger workplace procedures, which are considered by many staff as far from helpful. In many cases, these processes are close to harassment as the employee is “helped” back to work. True, such processes deter people who are genuinely “swinging the lead” and in any workforce such people exist. The problem with trawling a net to catch the dishonest, is that you also ensnare the honest, hard-working employee, who may become unwell, fears company process, and works on regardless.

Staying with unhelpful HR policies, many people drag themselves back to work, prematurely often before they are well. In the case of infectious illnesses, this can cross infect others, compounding sickness in an organisation. It is therefore a moot point for a member of staff, and indeed HR, as to whether somebody who is ill should stay off to avoid contagion, juxtaposed against procedures that vigorously encourage the employee to return. This is a difficult balancing act. Equally, there are those who force themselves back prematurely only to fall foul of organisational sickness because they relapse and have to go sick again. In many organisations, it is the frequency of absence not the duration, the triggers procedures. Honest employees can find themselves in the situation where they need a second absence because they simply weren’t well enough to return to work, whereas those who go down, stay down, and allow themselves a generous amount of time for the recovery, are relatively unscrutinised. Talk to any member of staff has been subject to this process, and you will find it is a recipe for the honest and conscientious feeling oppressed and the truly uncommitted, passing relatively unnoticed by the organisation. That’s the problem of applying of so- called “fair” procedures over emotionally intelligent processes.

Mental health problems can operate at a subacute level for a long period of time before resulting in significant reduction in functioning and/or long sickness periods. If one cannot care for one’s physical health because of a belief that workplace policies are punitive and unsupportive, it is unlikely one would expect a sympathetic response to one’s mental health problems. This can results in cataclysmic sickness events for individuals which could have been avoided had a more thoughtful culture prevailed. It is no accident that in a recent Institute of Directors survey, only 14% of companies had formal mental health strategies and even for the 14% that do, some work needs to be done on the quality of the implementation. Policy documents are easily generated and feed the beast of a “tick box” world where everybody wants to seem the good guy, the progressive employer, with a minimum of effort.

Both political parties are making employee rights a key agenda item. Equally progressive companies seek “engaged” employees. Radical thinking is needed about just what that means. These days many employees are subject to reactive, oppressive policies that actually work against the conscientious free thinker. Increasingly people have to work in places where they have to adopt a “jump for joy” mentality that reflects the mindset of the company’s progenitors with all of the false identity, rehearsed approaches to customer service and organisational rhetoric that as a consequence of insufferable charismatic leadership. You see in this modern world, success in the immediate is a social antidote to many such leaders being seen as the true narcissists they are.

Truth is, long before sickness and mental health problems in their traditional sense come to the fore, many staff are burnt out and disillusioned with the world of jumping through hoops. Such approaches stifle employee flair and autonomy, and seeks to produce functionaries both at the shop floor level and at the managerial level that do as they’re told, have qualified identities and are punished for free thought by the modern version of Orwellian “thought crime”.

It is right that the relationship between an employee and the workplace is a political agenda with the rights of employees upheld. For every manipulative employee, there are probably an equal number of manipulative employers. Worker rights offer a dynamic balance which is not perfect, but in its absence, could result in further misuses of power.

The truth is, people need to take responsibility for their own healthcare. Of course they should consider whether they are fit enough to go to the pub if they weren’t well enough for work, as this is unfair to their colleagues and employers. However, leaders who excessively bear down on sickness and absence as a way of driving up efficiency whilst encouraging the vulnerable to move on is not an effective contribution to an organised, sentient, growing society either.

I’ll have to stop now, I’m feeling a bit peaky!