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Why doesn’t anyone call in sick anymore?

The number of days taken off due to illness in the UK is at a record low – but is this a sign of economic weakness rather than strength?

The news that the number of days taken off because of sickness in the UK has fallen to a record low has been met by puzzlement and also suspicion. Are we really becoming so much healthier as a nation – and so much more committed as a workforce – or are there other factors at play discouraging us from spending days under the duvet?

On the surface, the figures from the Office for National Statistics look encouraging: the average number of days taken off sick per worker per year has almost halved from 7.2 days in 1993 to 4.1 days in 2017, and that trend is continuing. Does this mean, then, that we have a contented, motivated workforce?

Obviously, that argument doesn’t hold water. Union membership has also fallen considerably over that period, leaving many sections of the workforce without the protections they previously enjoyed. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, has argued that “sickness absence is low because presenteeism is high”. Take sick leave and you are likely to be downgraded or even dismissed. Sickness – physical or mental – is equated with weakness.

The number of sick days is a hopeless barometer of economic wellbeing. Job satisfaction and productivity are far better guides, and the UK scores poorly on both. Britain is invariably near the bottom of European league tables in terms of job satisfaction and work-life balance, with Germany and the Netherlands leaving us trailing in their wakes.

Even more damagingly, the UK’s level of productivity is also low by European standards, and it is significant that those countries with high job satisfaction are the ones with the most productive workers. “In a typical week, German workers could clock off on Thursday afternoon and still produce as much as British workers doing a full week’s work,” reported the Financial Times earlier this year.

The irony is that the fall in the number of sick days could be a sign of economic weakness rather than strength. The UK has a disempowered workforce, anxious about the future and often unsure of its role in organisations. Low wages, declining living standards and precarious employment fed Brexit, yet Brexit is likely to make the situation worse. Sick days may well continue to decline as the nation as a whole gets economically sicker.

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