Gimmicks aside, National Sickie Day is one for celebrating

Flu, or catching up on Borgen? Close to Home

In workplaces right now it is increasingly tough to avoid what I call “pathology days” – those working days that are annually hijacked by some insistent PR agency or charity trying to raise awareness of those days which remind us how unhappy we are. “Blue Monday”, apparently the most depressing day of the year, we are told, is usually in early January, and such press releases are often accompanied by some dubious psychologist with a junk-science mathematical formula relating to debt, darkness, days-to-payday and so on.

I’m always suspicious that such days never occur on a weekend when I could easily avoid having my awareness raised by hiding in the pub. But occur on a weekday they invariably do; a day of the week when I should be at work, getting on with the job that I am paid to do. One such event is the annual National Stress Awareness Day which comes by each November, thanks to the organisers (the International Stress Management Association) who clearly have a vested interest in their “product”. Unfortunately it seems, such awareness does nothing to reduce the 220,000 new cases of stress-related absences from work recorded each year in the UK since the late 1990s.

Cynical I may be, but such pathology days usually result in workplaces holding people to ransom by making them either accept invitations to tea and cake parties (thank you very much Outlook Calender) or remain feeling guilty for being that guy who declined the invitation. By selling over-priced homemade cupcakes (when will this fad ever end?), such days usually conclude by raising more cash than actual awareness.

And while I’m at it, can we bring back half-day closing too?

Today, however, is a different matter, I think. Monday 3 February 2014 is a day that could prove to be a fantastic barometer of the human condition. Gimmicks such as The National Happiness Survey or the Population Census can only tell us so much about what it is like to live and work in the UK, but this Monday may yield some hard data with useful insights into the health of UKplc.

I am pleased to report that it is National Sickie Day. It is not one of those awareness raising feel-good occasions, and neither is it an official day of recognition for the chronically ill, nor is it part of some orchestrated facebook-cum-twitter-campaign to take time off work.

Based on epidemiological data collected by the Office for National Statistics, Confederation of British Industry, the UK labour force survey statistics, the first Monday in February has, for the past five years, seen a significant spike in sickness absence, with between 300,000 to 370,000 workers absent from work. The reasons behind this peak in absences varies, but sometimes it is attributed to workers feeling they are “owed” a day or two from their employers (given that Easter is still a long way off and that Christmas is long gone).

Our attitudes to sickness absence provide a snapshot of UK workers and our feelings about work, and an ability to examine the UK position in the labour market. We are still the grafters of Europe – we have more people in full-time employment than many other EU countries; more workers engaged in paid overtime work, and perhaps most concerning of all, we take on more unpaid overtime work than workers in other EU countries. For this reason alone some think we should overlook the occasional sick day.

It comes down to individual workers and their feelings of what they are entitled to and their own sense of responsibility. Some industries are prone to this more than others, with the public sector usually having greater sickness absence rates than the private. Some suspect National Sickie Day is a hangover/recovery day (the result of the “harvesting hyopothesis”) a delayed morning-after effect following the much anticipated and long-awaited January payday only a few days before.

Given how hard we work, and all the unpaid overtime we put in, National Sickie Day can almost be viewed as a dark embrace of British employee truculence, entitlement, awkwardness and down-right bolshiness that workers in other European countries must surely envy. We should celebrate it.