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In sickness and in health

By Joel Bevin - posted Friday, 6 February 2009

As the long summer days stretch into each other, a strange epidemic threatens workforces across the country. An illness transmitted by a tanned glow and sandy hair. The symptoms are easy to spot. Longing glances out the lifts at the rare rays of natural light that filter in as you slowly ascend to your respective cell block. Meteorology websites gain a loyal and hopeful following. And you respond with an overly-confident “yes” when meetings are scheduled for the following day. Leaving with a care-free wave you say with a fake smile “See you in the morning”. A slow trudge towards the door is replaced, once out of sight, by a jump and kick of your heels as thoughts of the forthcoming overdose of vitamin D fill your head.

Completely justified during the colder months when the office resembles a quarantined enclosure, questions are asked when sick leave is taken at a time when sunstroke is the most valid affliction.

Every year employees are granted 10 days sick leave. The majority of employees don’t exploit these leave entitlements and take the odd, legitimate day off to manage normal ailments that arise. In fact, a recent study by global consulting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers found that across the Australian workforce, employees took an average of 5.2 days of sick leave each year.


This morally impressive average includes the people who swallow copious amounts of cold and flu tablets to deal with the winter chill, those who simply steel themselves and cough and sneeze their way through the day (infecting their colleagues in the process) and the corrupted souls who are struck down with the “sick of work” condition.

Is each choice equally valid or does one require greater justification? It is definitely one grey area which needs to be cleared before the blue summer skies are once again painted grey.

Do the frail who buckle at the onset of a sneeze deserve a day off? Or should the hardy souls, disgusted that sick leave even exists, occupy the moral high ground? And where does that leave the remainder who, through luck or maintenance, remain in good health and use sick leave as a mental health reward?

Across Australia, unspoken suspicions are rising to the surface as companies increasingly demand a doctor’s certificate to justify a day off and indignant employees flood doctors to obtain this certificate. A certificate which does little else than formally validate your inability to work due to the medical condition of “not being up to it”.

A report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in mid-2008 found that GPs are being required to issue twice as many medical certificate as they did 10 years ago as trust declines within the workplace. This task is now being outsourced to chemists to cope with the increased demand. The report found that in 1997, around one in 120 visits to GPs were to obtain a medical certificate and today, the numbers are close to 1 in 60.

What has changed in the last decade? We certainly haven’t become less able to care for ourselves with home medicine cabinets challenging the range offered in the local chemist. And advances in medicine have apparently made falling ill more of a challenge. Could it be that the new generation which entered the workforce in the last ten years has changed the rules? A generation raised in good times where shrinking families meant a sense of entitlement was instilled in childhood and remained once in the workforce.


The generational variation is showing up in all areas of the workforce. Generation Y view the employer as a tool for personal and professional advancement and the yearly review is no longer accompanied by a sense of caution. With heightened expectations, working conditions and leave arrangements are becoming open to interpretation rather than rigid and preached from above. If you go to the effort of keeping yourself healthy and don’t require your quota of sick leave then surely it is legitimate to be rewarded with the odd mental health day.

This mindset is in direct contrast to previous generations who expected nothing more than a pay cheque from their employer. This loyal breed of employee worked hard and tied their success with the company’s fortunes - if that meant sacrificing weekends and working with a runny nose then so be it. Generation Y still work weekends and perhaps spend more hours online for their employer but motivations have changed - they will only work weekends and late nights if their efforts are recognised and will be sure to take advantage of all the perks on offer, which are conveniently defined to include sick leave.

On reflection, it does make a level of sense. If an individual chooses to invest in their health through vitamins, food choices, gym membership and general lifestyle choices then shouldn’t some pay-off take place? Although valid cases obviously exist, why should individuals who are lax in taking care of themselves be afforded the luxury of sick leave, which the rest of us inadvertently pay for.

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About the Author

Joel currently lives in Melbourne and works in consulting on social trends and demographics. He is studying his Masters in International Relations and Trade. He runs two websites: where he writes about people and the world and where he interviews people about themselves and the world.

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