Doona days or doctor's notes: how to solve the $26 billion sickie problem?

by 07 Feb 2012

Some indiscriminate virus must have been around on 27 January: figures from an independent survey showed 170,000 more people than average called in sick on the work day which followed the Australia Day public holiday. Poor things.

Even on a normal day an average 2.6% of workers are absent due to illness, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Extrapolated, this means ‘sickies’ cost the Australian economy more than $26bn a year. That's the entire GDP of Jordan.

But what can we do about it? Put our collective feet down? Or get flexible, send them off for a snooze, or hire more workers to help them out?

Paul Dundon from employee health solutions and absence management firm Direct Health Solutions (DHS) said Australian absentee rates are well above international averages and that one possible reason behind the sky-high absenteeism is a lack of flexibility in workplaces. “Non-genuine sick leave, which is what we like to call it, is more prevalent in workplaces where there's less flexibility,” Dundon said.

Some workplaces have taken to offering ‘doona days’ to ensure workers take genuine days off rather than feign an illness. Public relations and communication firm August.One is one such organisation, and a spokesperson said the purpose is to offer a guilt-free environment for workers needing a day off. “They can take time off without having to lie and to make excuses. When you’re tired, when you’re hungover, when you're stressed out and you won't be able to perform at your best … what we've tried to do is legitimise those days,” the company said.

One wonders at what stage requests for such days get turned down. Presumably it’s not dependent on the level of guilt.

Director of the Workplace Research Centre at University of Sydney, Dr John Buchanan, believes the root cause of high absenteeism is stress and that there’s a culture of working every last cent out of employees until they ‘give up’. “Managers manage by stress. They cut staffing levels, see how far the organisation can limp along with as few staff as possible and then respond. This has significant impacts on the workforce,” Buchanan said.

No-one mentioned anything about indolence, honesty or drinking less the night before a work day.

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