Australian businesses struggling with sickie epidemic among workers
Australia’s growing obsession with sickies is costing Australia billions. But is the nation really getting sicker or is it just a nation of entitled slackers?
Well-being expert Terry Robson believes the “epidemic” of sickies, which amounts to 90 million sick days every year and A$34.1 billion (NZ$36.1b) being sucked out of the economy annually, is down to companies failing to grasp the legitimate reasons for staff not showing up for work.
He says excessive and prolonged work pressure is leading to burnout and operating in an “always-on” culture, which has been worsened by technology and mobile devices that have eroded the boundaries between work and personal life.
Robson also believes mental illness is one of the biggest contributors to workplace absences.
However, Direct Health Solutions managing director Paul Dundon said the rise of the sickie culture was down to a combination of factors — including a “sense of entitlement” among Australian employees, a lack of flexibility from employers and, of course, illness.
“People see that they have 10 sick days a year and they feel that they might as well take them,” he said. “Some people do the right thing and take no sick leave, some people take the full 10 days and a bunch of people take well over that.”
He breaks these down into three groups. There are “chronic absentees” who often have underlying health issues and mental health concerns. They often take well over the 10 days employers are required to give.
“But the people who are taking the 10 days exactly are often doing it for work-life balance or they just don’t really care and chuck a sickie,” Dundon said.
“And then there’s a group we call ‘troopers’ who very rarely take sick days at all.”
But why is there such a broad range of attitudes towards sick leave in Australian workplaces?
Dundon believes it’s all down to the culture of each organisation.
“In many companies you’ll see habitual absenteeism going on and other people see them taking it with no consequence. And, because of that, they think: ‘I’ll do that’.
“We call them dominoes. There’s also another group, which is ‘under-the-radars’, who are very calculated in taking their sick days.
“They’ll take the 10 days every year so they never come on to the manager’s radar. They might take sick days to extend their long weekend or, in shift work environments, they might take a day off to extend the break between their shifts.”
However, Robson says mental health is one of the key factors in employees taking sick days, and low job satisfaction can feed into these health problems.
A National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being indicated that about 45 per cent of Australians aged 16-85 would experience a mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety or a substance abuse disorder, in their lifetime.
“People with low job satisfaction often report higher levels of depression, sleep problems, and excessive worry,” he said. “On top of that, low job satisfaction leads to more emotional problems and lower scores on overall mental health.”
However, according to the 2017 Absence Management & Well-being survey, levels of sickness in Australia have remained pretty much constant.
The results showed that 40 per cent of the 122 organisations taking part believed absence levels increased in the past 12 months and only 24 per cent indicated that sickies had decreased.
Charles Hunter, managing director of WellBeing GROW, which looks to boost corporate well-being, health and productivity, says the effects can be devastating.
“There is a flow-on effect when an employee doesn’t come to work,” he said. “It can make other employees less productive and negatively impact staff morale and workplace culture.”
However, he said the elephant in the room for many companies was the issue of mental health which, he believes, many businesses are failing to address.
“Many businesses actually don’t know how to address mental health issues in the workplace,” he said. “Many managers I have spoken to don’t really understand how to appropriately deal with mental health or understand how to have a conversation with team members or colleagues in need.”
National Mental Health Commissioner and businesswoman Lucy Brogden suggested workers should be allowed to take sick days without giving their boss a reason, in a bid to tackle mental health issues in the workplace.
“I’d like people to be able to take sick leave without having to say why. The old food poisoning, migraine — that’s often covering up for a mental health day,” Brogden said.
“Staff don’t have to disclose until they’re ready, if they’re anxious then disclosing it upfront or in the early stages may not help their recovery.”
She said at least two or three days of unexplained sick leave should be allowed.