Sick of sickies – Australia’s poor sick leave culture and what business can do about it

A recent survey has prompted estimates that absenteeism is costing the Australian economy $28 billion in lost productivity and wages per annum, with the public service alone bearing costs of $1-$1.5 billion.

The survey of over 100 employers by absence-management firm Direct Health Solutions, also exposes the fact that Australia’s average absence levels are 8.75 days per worker, almost one-third higher than UK sick leave rates.

Another key finding is the fact that heavily unionised workplaces have higher rates of sick leave (21 per cent higher than non-unionised workplaces), with management finding it more difficult to address absenteeism in the face of union power.

The worst industries for absenteeism are telecommunications, utilities, call centres, tourism and hospitality and government. The best industries are retail, manufacturing and information technology.

Eighty-three percent of employers believe between 10 and 25 percent of sick leave is non-genuine.

One distinct problem is absenteeism around public holidays and weekends – absenteeism reached around 30 per cent at some parts of Toyota after Australia Day this year, prompting a tough management response, and the Monday before Melbourne Cup Day sees an annual epidemic of “sickies” in Melbourne. An audit of NSW teachers this year found that sick leave rates are a third higher on Mondays and Fridays than other weekdays.

While absenteeism is a major problem, there is no silver bullet solution, only silver buckshot.

Encouraging staff to stay healthy and exercise, with incentives such as subsidised gym memberships and breaks for movement and stretching for deskbound workers is one solution. A recent survey of 1,000 workers across six government departments found that 85 per cent of those who spent more than eight hours a day working at a computer experienced neck pain. State Governments such as the Victorian Government are rolling out WorkHealth programs that offer free health checks and incentive payments for the implementation of policies that promote employee health.

It is no coincidence that there are higher rates of sick leave in large, particularly public sector, organisations, where employees are less likely to be engaged. iHR believes a key aspect of managing staff turnover and promoting productivity is around leadership and engagement – an interested and engaged workforce is less likely to want to “chuck a sickie”.

A sick leave policy for all businesses, large and small, is essential. This not only enables recourse for managers to take action against sick leave malingerers and abusers, but also sets out and communicates clear expectations to staff. One well-used plank of a typical sick leave policy is the requirement for a medical certificate to be presented for an absence of a certain length or an absence immediately before or after a public holiday.

iHR recommends well-defined and documented policies and procedures that minimise legal and business risks and enable staff to understand an organisation and its policies, such as those around sick leave.