Skiving (and the art of throwing a sickie)

A stall outside Lord's selling false beards and sombreros
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The Independent Online

My father-in-law Bob, now happily retired, enjoyed a long career as an electrical engineer at a colliery in South Yorkshire. Less a few days off "sick", when invariably he played golf.

My father-in-law Bob, now happily retired, enjoyed a long career as an electrical engineer at a colliery in South Yorkshire. Less a few days off "sick", when invariably he played golf.

With a colleague he used to take the odd Friday off to play Lindrick, a course near Sheffield. This practice was threatened when their boss inconsiderately bought a house overlooking Lindrick's 16th fairway, so on all subsequent visits they used to skip the par-five 16th, just in case the boss's wife spotted them.

Had it been the boss himself who spotted them, then at least they could have accused him of throwing a sickie, too. That was the awkward situation in which an Edinburgh bank manager found himself last August, when he took a spontaneous day off to go fishing on the Tay, and wound up a few yards downriver from one of his tellers.

Bob has loads of sick stories. He knew miners who would habitually take a day off, citing illness, when superstition was the reason. A wildly superstitious bunch, many miners would turn for home if on the way to the pit they saw a single magpie. An ambulance, understandably, was another bad omen. So was a woman, if spotted by a miner on his way to an early shift.

Is that mad, or is it charming? That's the problem with the sickie; it's invariably the source of amusement. For instance, it's a reasonable bet that there was a guy at the Lord's Test match yesterday who skipped an important video presentation to the board, citing his granny's funeral, and is in for a carpeting today after popping up on the late-night highlights, swigging a lager. The convention of cameras sweeping the crowd, at cricket matches in particular, is bad news for sickie-throwers. A stall on the outside Lord's selling false beards would do great business.

But the guy yesterday might yet get away with it. He might even get a promotion if his bosses are impressed with his line that granny was a cricket nut who wanted her ashes scattered over the Nursery End.

Is it such a reprehensible practice, taking the odd illicit sick day? In Australia, where the term 'throwing a sickie' is said to have been coined, it is widely regarded as an employee*s right even by the employer.

Ultimately, I suppose it depends how many you take and what job you do. My mother-in-law Anne, Bob's wife, was the head teacher of a primary school. Whenever the phone rang on a Sunday evening, she knew it would be one of two teachers given to reporting sick for Monday's school. So my parents-in-law encapsulate the British sick day experience: the perpetrator and the victim.

According to researchers for the Confederation of British Industry and Axa Insurance, 176 million sick days were taken last year, some of them, I shouldn't wonder, by researchers for the CBI and Axa Insurance. Of those days, around 25 million - some 15 per cent - were considered 'suspicious'.

So with the cost of sick leave to British business estimated at £11.6 billion a year, in wages and lost productivity, some £1.7bn of that expense is incurred because of what used to be called plain skiving.

But the word skiving has overtones of laziness, shiftlessness, irresponsibility; throwing a sickie sounds more larky. Whatever, they both add up to a level of absenteeism which many British companies say they can no longer afford. The supermarket chain Sainsbury's has stopped sick pay for the first three days off. This initiative has also been taken up by Tesco. And since it was introduced, employees bound by the new regulation have taken five per cent less sick leave than their colleagues.

Which may or not be a good thing for the customer. We don't want the supermarket giants to cover their losses by whacking up their prices. But at the same time, we don't want genuinely unwell assistants on the deli counter, spluttering germs over the Parma ham. And withholding short-term sick-pay might not be the answer, anyway.

My father-in-law had a colleague who was meant to work five days a week but only ever turned up for four. And so got paid for four. "Why do you only work a four-day week, Joe?" his boss asked him. "Because I can*t manage on three," replied Joe.

It was among those coalfields of South Yorkshire that the practice of taking sick days was given a name, long before anyone had heard of throwing sickies. The local golden girl was Dorothy Hyman, a brilliant sprinter, whose participation in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome - the first Olympics to be televised live - led to widespread absenteeism. It was called "Hymanitis" by the bemused manager of Grimethorpe Colliery.

Meanwhile, 44 years later, a survey by the Foreign Office has revealed that no fewer than 40 per cent of Britons would be prepared to feign illness if offered a last-minute chance of tickets for next month's European football championships in Portugal. Sport has a lot to answer for.

All of which is a trifle frustrating for sports writers, denied the exhilaration of an illicit sickie as they pass through the turnstiles. Unless of course they don't pass through the turnstiles but instead sneak off to give a video presentation to the board.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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