Knock in store for workers on `sickie'

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The "knocker-up" who encouraged 19th-century millworkers to leave their beds in the morning, by hammering on their bedroom windows with long poles, may be returning to British industry in a new guise.

An increasing number of companies are deputing senior staff to visit the homes of employees off sick, and woe betide the absentee afflicted only with a sniffle or who seems to be recuperating away from home.

The days when workers could throw the occasional "sickie" as a way of extending their holiday entitlement may be coming to an end.

Mark Hastings, of the Institute of Management, tells of a computer consultancy in London where the head man took to buying absentees a bunch of flowers and delivering them personally. "A couple of times they found nobody in. No one was sacked but sickness rates fell sharply," said Mr Hastings.

At the Nissan car company, near Sunderland, supervisors have been known to turn up on doorsteps, inquiring about the well-being of absent workers.

The Japanese car company insists it is not part of a new totalitarian policy. "Supervisors look after small groups of people so they will know them well. These guys get on well together. If they are visiting people who are off, it will be out of genuine concern."

It's not what Gerry Steinberg MP has been told, however. Mr Steinberg, member for the City of Durham, has accused the company of hassling employees to get them back to work.

"De-layering" and "down-sizing" throughout industry have made management more conscious of who's in and who's not. It is calculated that the economy loses about pounds 13bn a year through absenteeism.

Mr Hastings said the technique of using personal visitations by managers was "in its infancy" in Britain, but that companies were becoming increasingly concerned about the costs of absenteeism.