It is one of those media standbys. You can almost predict its appearance every six months or so. Here it comes again – the Confederation of British Industry, all over the Today programme and the broadsheets with a guilt-inducing attack on the British worker and his or her propensity for throwing sickies. And there is always that figure, far too big to under- stand, the annual “cost to British industry” of absenteeism. The latest of these is £11.5bn. According to various surveys, the British worker takes on average eight days off sick per year. Those working in the public sector call in sick more often than those working in the private sector. Prison officers, civil servants, police and nurses tend to take the most days off sick, the surveys say. They go for 12 or 13.
The subtext of these reports is: come on, guys. Pull your weight. You’re not really, ill, are you? You’re letting down the team. It’s unpatriotic. While pretending to be objective and caring, they make it into a moral issue. I remember hearing a joyless spokesperson from the CBI on the radio smugly observing: “Isn’t it funny how workers’ sick days so often coincide with major sporting events?”
The response of big companies to this £11.5bn annual loss varies. As it’s pretty obvious that happy workers would not skive off so much, most bleat some guff about introducing flexible working practices or improving conditions in some way. They talk about caring for staff when it is really only profits and share prices that interest them. Just have a look at the comments from giant companies on the Work Foundation’s website for examples of hilarious corporate bullshit. You will see Tesco, Lloyds TSB and others bandying about such phrases as “a focus on people”, “innovation management” and “holistic approach”.
What the companies then actually do is introduce unbelievably draconian measures to penalise offenders. Tesco, which seems to be one of the most profitable companies in the world, announced in May that it was to test new schemes for penalising skiving workers. The idea was to refuse to give sick pay for the first three days of a staff member’s illness. Such breathtaking brutality from a company that makes £4.4m profit per day can be explained only as a PR move to encourage the share price further upward. Or perhaps Tesco’s board members agreed over lunch that their overpaid shelf-stackers and checkout girls were having it too easy. They’re living the life of Riley, that lot, the directors opine as they stuff foie gras and claret down their gullets. Why the hell should our shareholders pay for their bloody skiving?
British Airways also recently became extremely worried by absentee rates and their effect on its share price. Seventeen sick days per year is the average for a BA employee. To me, this is a pretty obvious sign that BA is a bad employer. Stress and overwork will lead to illness and depression. But the airline’s response the other day, as part of a strike-averting deal with the union, was to announce “robust” new measures to reduce sick leave.
The effect of withholding sick pay for the first three days will be that workers will struggle in to work with colds and flu, damaging their own health, damaging the health of the workers around them, and perhaps damaging the health of the customer. They will be helped in this by pain-concealers such as Lemsip, which, in the words of the advertising, is “medicine for hard-working heroes”. The idea is that you soldier on and work through it. Do not, whatever you do, let illness get in the way of being exploited by your employer.
The prejudice against illness and taking days off could become critical. I understand that in the United States, which does not have the healthy skiving tradition of the UK, the culture is even worse. Illness is for wimps. The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Nickel and Dimed, reports the attitude to absence through illness of one cleaning firm boss: “Now if I get a migraine I just pop two Excedrins and work through it.”
Yet even if we do lose £11.5bn a year to absenteeism, who cares? I refuse to feel sorry for these gigantic corporations. My lack of pity is motivated by a figure that tends not to get such widespread coverage on the Today programme and in our national newspapers as the one that the CBI releases. It reflects instead the amount of unpaid overtime that the British worker puts in today, and is released by the Trades Union Congress.
Last year, says the TUC, the figure for unpaid overtime amounted to £23bn. OK, it’s still one of those figures that is so large as to be unreal. But even I can do simple maths and deduct money lost to sickness from money gained through unpaid overtime and conclude that, in the battle between capital and labour, capital makes a clean profit of £11.5bn a year. If I were the CBI, therefore, I would keep quiet and thank my lucky stars that so many workers are doing so much for so little.
The TUC, by the way, deserves lots of credit for sensibly campaigning for a change away from a long-hours culture and towards what it calls a “work-smart” culture, in which people finish the work in the time available. It has launched a campaign encouraging people to work their proper hours and not to sit there staring at a screen, making themselves ill and tired.
Skiving is nothing new. In the centuries-long battle between industry and idleness, labourers have always resisted regular hours and overwork. In the 17th century, the irregular working week was the norm and Monday was sacrosanct. It was an unofficial day off. It was to be spent drinking with friends. This custom was called Saint Monday. Here is one observer writing in 1681: “The weavers, ’tis common with them to be drunk on Monday, have their head-ache on Tuesday, and their tools out of order on Wednesday. As for the shoemakers, they’ll rather be hanged than not remember St Crispin on a Monday.”
Then the industrial revolution came along and imposed strict working schedules on the peasants. But according to E P Thompson, Saint Monday was still widely honoured throughout the 18th, 19th and even the 20th centuries. A contemporary moralist complained of London saddlers in 1811 that “we see Saint Monday so religiously kept in this great city . . . in general followed by a Saint Tuesday also”.
Absenteeism is merely the modern word for Saint Monday.
Firms are told by consultants that there are simple ways to deal with absenteeism. The healthcare consultancy IHC recently produced a report which recommended that firms hire an in-house GP and masseurs and things like that. Some companies have introduced things called duvet days, a rather ugly term for the notion that each employee is given, say, six days a year when he or she can call in and take the day off without explanation.
This is all well and good. Maybe it is possible for companies to make little changes and improve conditions for their workers, but to me, it is obvious that we take days off because we don’t like working. Given the choice between lying in bed watching old films and dozing all day, or doing six hours non-stop at a supermarket checkout for £6 an hour, I know which I would choose.
No, a bit of massage won’t deal with the real problem, which is that most jobs – my research suggests nine out of ten – rob us of our spirit and we don’t like them. We only do them for the money, and skiving off is a way of reclaiming some of our own time. You might as well ask a lion to stop killing antelopes as ask capitalists to care for their employees. Absenteeism, therefore, is a justifiable reaction to an inhuman and enslaving system of work.
As for what can be done about it, who knows? We need a revolution. The TUC is right that cultural change is required. I would campaign, however, for something far more radical – bringing back Saint Monday by introducing the four-day week, for instance. I would also argue for many more bank holidays. In the end, though, top-down solutions by interfering do-gooders never work. What we need is for all of us to tell our employers that if you want us to work in your crummy shops, factories, warehouses and offices, then you are going to have to improve wages and conditions a hell of a lot. We want £10 an hour and four-hour shifts. If that’s not forthcoming, I’m going to live in a caravan, grow turnips and stare at the sky all day.
Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Idle is published by Hamish Hamilton on 28 August