The economics of chucking a sickie

Bob Hawke said it best in September 1983 after watching Alan Bond’s 12-metre yacht, the Australia II, sail to victory in the America’s Cup: “I tell you what, any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.” And a stellar moment in the Australian tradition of ”chucking a sickie” was born.

Australian workers took an average of 10 days each in unplanned leave last year, including sick leave, carers leave and personal leave, according to a survey by Direct Health Solutions. Sick leave is estimated to account for three-quarters of this time, or 7.5 days a year.

So are we really sick one week in the year? It’s clear employers don’t think so. According to the survey, almost three-quarters of employers surveyed believe between 10 to 25 per cent of absences are ”non-genuine”. Employers also report two in three Australian workers regard paid personal and sick leave as an entitlement.

Employers estimate this loss of work time comes at a cost to the economy of $20 to $30 billion a year and have introduced all manner of ways to control it, including requiring medical certificates and employing the services of companies such as Direct Health Solutions whereby workers must ring a registered nurse to present their ailment before taking the day off. So are we really a nation of layabouts? Or is the tradition of the ”sickie”, like our legendary relaxed, beachside persona, more myth than reality?

Three decades on since Hawke effectively declared his national holiday, the Australian workforce is transformed. We work longer hours, the longest in the developed world on some measures.

The invention of emails, smartphones and iPads mean we are ”plugged in” to the office for more hours of the day, while the number of hours spent at physical work, but unpaid, has also risen.

A study by the Australia Institute for its inaugural national ”go home on time day” last November estimated Australians put in more than two billion hours of unpaid overtime a year. This translates to a $72 billion gift to employers each year in unpaid work, eclipsing the $30 billion employers estimate they lose from workers claiming their sick leave and personal leave entitlements.

Perhaps Australians are just stealing back what time has been stolen from them.

But then again, maybe we really are sick. And maybe we’re so sick because we work so hard.

Almost half of Australians surveyed by the Australia Institute said work commitments prevented them from doing exercise. One in four said they were ”too busy” to see a doctor.

Indeed, a separate survey by the economic modellers Econtech for the health insurer Medibank Private has looked into the problem of ”presenteeism” – the opposite of ”absenteeism”. Econtech estimates a $26 billion hit to the Australian economy from lost productivity from workers turning up to work while really sick.

Health experts this week revealed a fourfold increase in the number of Australians suffering the flu this month compared to last year. Baffled, they speculate it could be due to more people spending more time together indoors.

Some days it really is worth staying in bed.

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