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SICK OF BEING SICK

21-12-2006

Recent revelations about the amount of time council employees in Birminghamspend on sick leave have prompted The Stirrer's resident psychologist Dr Mike Drayton to lay down a challenge.

The thing about working for the effing council is that they don't care if you're there and they don't care if you're not there”.

I was talking to my mate, who works for Birmingham City Council about the story on The Stirrer about the ‘sickie' culture athis workplace,which leads to £1m a week being spent on temps (read the original article here).

He made it clear thatwhen he is at work he doesn't feel appreciated and when he is sick he sees his managers going through the motions but he knows that sickness isn't (a) taken seriously and (b) nobody seems to care whether is ill or well.

I'm sure the council would argue that they have policies and procedures in place. However, there is a world of difference between having such policies and enforcing them in a compassionate and firm manner.

Understanding high absenteeism in big organisations is a complicated job, but if you're a workers in, say,a local authorityor the NHS the calculation is simple. If I go in to work I get few or no rewards. I don't feel valued or appreciated, but I do get a lot of ‘punishment', in the form of stress. If I go sick when I am not really sick, I get immediately rewarded because the ‘punishment' stops. Then getting to spend time at home watching telly, reading, listening to music or gardening further rewards me.

Whether I go into work or stay at home, I still get rewarded by being paid. If I go off on a sickie, I don't get punished by disciplinary action because my manager's hands are tied by a cumbersome disciplinary process that takes months to implement and is easy to manipulate. Besides, in this organization, we all go off sick in order to cope, even my boss. So, in a sense, it becomes a perfectly rational decision for some people to throw a sickie. Who would behave differently in those circumstances?

This has disastrous consequences, especially for those conscientious people who struggle in. When I worked in theHealth Servicewe all knew that the some agency nurses were worse than useless. They did not know the patients or routines and needed constant supervision. Therefore, widespread use of temporary staff often increases the burden of responsibility on the permanent staff. Temps are both an expensive and inefficient solution to a bigger problem in the organization.

Similarly, when someone goes off sick it just increases the burden on those at work. Indeed, the main reason many people don't throw a sickie is the feelings of guilt resulting from dumping the extra work on their colleagues.

Organisations often reward those people who go off sick and punish those who struggle in to work. In psychobabble, it's called negative reinforcement. In other words, encouraging a behaviour not by rewarding it but by removing a negative stimulus. For example if you want your partner to do the washing up you can say “If you wash up, I will tickle your feet later” (positive reinforcement) as opposed to “If you do the washing up, I will stop nagging you” (negative reinforcement).

It follows then that a simple starting point for the council in thinking about their problem with sickness is to reconsider how they ‘positively reinforce' or reward those workers with good sickness records and how they can stop ‘negatively reinforcing' or rewarding people throwing a sickie. Note this is not the same as simply rewarding people who have a good sickness record and punishing those who don't. Things aint that simple.

It's wrong and simplistic just to blame lazy individuals for organisations with high sickness levels. The probleminvolves the relationships and culture in the organization. For example, I have already talked about how sickness is rewarded in a funny sort of way.

However, what about my mate who works very hard and does not feel appreciated? What simple things can the council do to recognize and reward those workers who do a good job? Is it in the culture for the organization for a manager to say. “Well done, you did a great job there”. I don't know. If a worker has a 100% attendance record, is this acknowledged and appreciated? Could they be given a couple of free tickets to see the Blues play as a reward? Sixty quid spent in the short term could save thousands in the long term.

I know somewould say that people shouldn't really be rewarded for doing what they are paid to do. I say 'why not`? Lets have a culture of appreciating and valuing those who work hard and behave well. This idea isn't lost on the financial big guns. These are scrooges who value money and profits above all else. What do they do, but give big bonuses to high performing workers.

What is the council doing to understand the tremendous stresses workers face every day. How does the council support and help workers who are suffering the effects of stress? People sometimes have to take time off work because of problems at home. Does the council encourage taking compassionate leave, that can be monitored and help and support provided; or is there a culture of ‘forcing' such people to go sick.

Are there formal and informal support systems in place? Are simple things that mitigate against stress routinely enforced like having proper lunch breaks and not taking work home.

Finally, what are the consequences for those workers who throw a sickie? Are they genuinely ‘ill' in the sense of suffering stress but too ashamed to admit it? Or is the stress of the job causing minor illnesses such as aches and pains, headaches or a feeling of being ‘tired all the time' (very familiar to most GPs). If so, can this be picked up and the person helped to cope better.

I'm 46 and have worked in the NHS for most of my working life. We all knew who the lazy buggers were, the one's who would regularly take the proverbial and go off sick when it suited them. What happened to them? Nothing, they would get away with it until they retired. I would suggest that the council negotiate a more robust sickness disciplinary process with the unions and quickly get rid of the mickey takers.

This would be as much in the interest of the unions and workers as the council as a whole. I once sacked the laziest and most useless employee in the NHS. It took a year of almost constant hassle even though everyone acknowledged the person was playing the system.

So here is a challenge to the council. I will work with them to reduce their sickness rate over the coming year if they pay me 10% of the money they save on temps (blimey, that's almost as much as Albion used to pay Kanu). That can't be a bad deal can it?

(see also Mike's article "Government clampdown on sickies")

Mike Drayton runs Opus Psychology in Birmingham. If the Council want to take him up on his offer they can contact him on 0121 698 8514).

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