Lord Sugar, Skivers and Office Chairs
Authors: Stephen Bevan
18 July 2011
It is with tedious, metronomic regularity that reports about malingering British workers appear in our business pages. Another one has come out this morning. PwC has conducted a survey which claims that a third of workers admit to ‘skiving’ – having time off sick when they were not genuinely ill. Consultancy firms know that journalists love stories about the ‘workshy’, they also know that – in most cases – their press releases will be picked up uncritically. However I have two problems with this one.
First, if anyone had bothered to check, they would have noticed that sickness absence from work is about much more than malingering. The latest pan-European data we have (from the European Working Conditions Survey) shows that over 50 per cent of UK workers take no sickness absence from work at all. In fact the real question here is whether we have an epidemic of ‘presenteeism’ – or people going to work when they are actually unwell. Indeed, I’m currently putting together a paper looking at whether absence rates in Europe are related to unemployment levels and my initial analysis shows that as worklessness and job insecurity rise, so does the proportion of workers who take no absence. Hardly evidence of malingering.
The second problem is that the PwC report implies that depression is not a ‘real’ reason for having time off work. If this is what they meant to say, then this is nothing short of outrageous. The BBC report of the study says ‘The majority of so-called "skivvers" said they did so because they were bored and depressed with work’. With 1 in 6 of UK workers suffering from depression it needs more serious coverage than this. Still, even Lord Sugar needs a bit of help here. In last night’s final of The Apprentice he claimed that if, as an employer, he was made to carry out checks to see if his office chairs risked giving people back pain he would ‘give up and emigrate’. Well, I have news for his Lordship. Ever since the 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act he has been obliged to carry out a risk assessment of exactly this kind of hazard. Work-related back pain is one of the biggest contributors to sickness absence and, is often linked to depression and anxiety.
The costs of back pain are also huge. Over 2.5 million people in the UK visit their GP with back pain each year. At any one time, 33 per cent of the UK population are suffering with back pain and up to 80 per cent of the adult population will suffer significant back pain at some time in their life. The annual costs of back pain in the European workforce have been estimated to exceed €12billion. Swedish back and neck patients on sick leave from work represent a total cost of about 7 per cent of the nation’s expenditure on health services.
Even more annoying for Lord Sugar is the forthcoming EU Directive on Musculoskeletal Disorders which will require him and other employers take these issues even more seriously. Enjoy being an émigré, Lord Sugar.
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