Long hours, sick days, and the British workplace

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The Independent Online

We are a nation of skivers, according to a survey of 500 firms conducted by the Confederation of British Industry. An estimated 25 million working days were lost last year to those mysterious day-long illnesses known as "sickies".

We are a nation of skivers, according to a survey of 500 firms conducted by the Confederation of British Industry. An estimated 25 million working days were lost last year to those mysterious day-long illnesses known as "sickies". It cost £11.6bn to cover the salaries of absent staff. Many of these lost days fell on a Friday or Monday, letting the invalid take a long weekend away from work. The implication of the survey is that we Britons need to buck up and stop ripping off our employers.

But excuse us if we demur from the mindset that says we should devote all our waking moments to the workplace. We already work more hours in Britain than most other countries - our European neighbours would not put up with it. The French value their leisure and family time so much that they have introduced a statutory 35-hour week. The best we have on this side of the Channel is legislation that entitles us to "ask" for flexible hours. Employers should consider whether rising rates of absenteeism are a symptom of our ruthless culture of long hours, rather than a manifestation of our innate laziness.

And what does the figure of £11.6bn really mean? Calculating the salary an employee is paid on a day off and chalking it up as a "loss" is cloud-cuckoo-land economics. By this logic, if we all worked weekends and bank holidays the British economy would be the largest in the world. In reality, workers need free time in order to do their jobs effectively. What the Government's experiment with flexible working legislation has taught us is that, over time, employers recognise the benefits of flexibility. With a little encouragement, businesses can learn that their employees can work fewer hours and be just as, if not more, productive.

We need to examine the way we are living now. Our free time is being diminished, and what we do have is fraught as mobile phones and the internet mean we're never totally out of contact. We have less time to spend with our families, with all the malign implications this has for bringing up children. This, not the "sickie", is the real scandal of the British workplace.

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