If we take too many sickies, perhaps it's the boss who's the bug

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The Independent Online

When did you last go off sick, and were you really ill? Has this question sent a tiny frisson of anxiety through your entrails or brought a smug little smile to your lips as you recall getting one over on the old boss bastard? Are you one of those very annoying people brought up to suffer paroxysms of guilt if you don't go to work, even though you're expiring from the black death and the symptoms of raised boils and a racking cough are so obvious? Or can you lie with the greatest of ease and give yourself well-deserved unsanctioned days off when you feel it's necessary?

When did you last go off sick, and were you really ill? Has this question sent a tiny frisson of anxiety through your entrails or brought a smug little smile to your lips as you recall getting one over on the old boss bastard? Are you one of those very annoying people brought up to suffer paroxysms of guilt if you don't go to work, even though you're expiring from the black death and the symptoms of raised boils and a racking cough are so obvious? Or can you lie with the greatest of ease and give yourself well-deserved unsanctioned days off when you feel it's necessary?

In this society we can be split into two groups. First, there are those individuals whose lives are controlled by the protestant work ethic, (otherwise known as That Bloody Annoying Mental Aberration Preventing A Nice Day Out At The Seaside During The Week), which is so heavily ingrained that "illegal" days off are spent in a paranoid sweat waiting for someone from personnel to pop out of the cupboard with a clipboard and a thermometer. (Someone I know even got caught by a colleague on another continent when they had taken a week off sick for a clandestine holiday).

The second group is much less committed to work-related guilt, having a thesaurus of symptoms in their heads with which to dazzle the bosses. And if a recent piece of research is anything to go by, this group has quite a hold on the work market, because out of every three days off work taken because of sickness, one of them is not genuine.

It is actually quite easy to pretend you are ill if you just take a few sensible precautions. For, example a favourite nursing staple is the omnipresent "D and V", (diarrhoea and vomiting). You'd think every takeaway in the country was a haven for salmonella the way that nurses sometimes drop like ninepins with this condition. I remember someone I worked with coming in to work after a D and V sick day with quite a serious case of sunburn. Now I'm not saying you can't sunbathe while you're guarding your unpredictable orifices, but I wouldn't risk it and if you're skiving, you should at least have the good manners to cover up your deception. Incidentally that particular tanned person now holds a very high status job in nursing, so his occasional self-donated days off didn't stop him getting on.

In fact, I used to take it as read that if someone only took one day off sick it was almost certain they were skiving and the clever ones allotted themselves a few extra days to make their "illness" convincing.

This national, professional skiving hobby, uncovered in recent research, apparently costs industry £4bn a year. I'm not sure throwing out these figures for our perusal is particularly helpful. It's like saying,"the fact that I didn't win the lottery is at a cost of £2m to me". And, anyway, where will the money go if we persuade everyone to behave themselves and go to work each day? Into some business man's pocket and the Treasury coffers, no doubt.

So is it really worth us all pulling together to make things better for the government and business bosses? I'd guess a lot of people would say no. And as far as creativity goes, it seems we are not the most imaginative of bunkers-off. The most common reasons for absenteeism are colds and headaches. I bet bosses are absolutely aching for a good entertaining story, such as: "I got my eyebrow trapped in an antique printing press", or "I caught Dutch elm disease in the park".

People, naturally, do tend to choose illnesses that you can easily fake. Or they perform that routine where they telephone the workplace as soon as they've woken up so their voice sounds particularly gravelly and then refuse to answer the phone all day in case the fully alert voice box gives them away.

The most common reason given by non manual workers for being off work is "stress", the word that no one can really quite define - luckily for them. Manual workers, on the other hand, have a far more macho excuse - this is "bad back", also cleverly the most difficult condition to diagnose and prove. Never, for example, should you say you've got something obscurely wrong with you, like Gilies de la Tourette syndrome, in which you get a verbal tic that makes you swear excessively, because then you have to swear constantly and unless you work as a Kwikfit fitter, you'll stand out like a sore thumb.

So, how are we as a society to handle this national disease, skiving, which is reaching epidemic proportions? There is an assumption that taking illegal sick leave occurs because we are not happy in our jobs. If this is the case, I'm surprised some clothes shops aren't completely empty with "Plague" written on the door, the staff are that bloody miserable. I sometimes go into these places and wonder whether they are shops or amateur drama groups performing the works of Beckett.

What appears to lower the rate of sickness are better working practices, allowing people to be free of the more rigid rules and to be treated like human beings, rather than being subjected to a Big Brother clampdown, during which they are hounded like DSS scroungers. It seems obvious to say it, but if people are respected in their work and they are not bullied then they tend not to skive off so much.

Still, there is something reassuring about knowing that the workforce can still claw back a little bit of power from the bosses, despite the fact that there are increasingly draconian measures in place to squeeze the last drop of slog out of them. I'm not encouraging people to go off work at the drop of a hat, but I do feel that the occasional medicinal day off can perk one up enough to continue in a job that is stressful and boring.

Let's be honest - these call centres could well not have any staff at all if it were impossible to throw the occasional therapeutic sickie.

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