"Sick-note culture harms the economy"


In November 1998, the UK government declared war on absenteeism. The Daily Mail quickly agreed that "sick-note culture" was harming Britain's economy. This theme is often revisited by politicians and media.

Although sometimes presented in a humorous way, the media stance feeds into the bigger fallacy that Britain's economic woes are caused by lazy, irresponsible individuals (rather than by political mismanagement/corruption).

Here are some of the typical low-level fallacies:

FALLACY: "Absenteeism costs the taxpayer £600 million a year". This is a dubious claim for two reasons:

1) It assumes that absentees would be productive at work. It's more likely they'd be unproductive. In other words, the £600 million cost may be due to lack of motivation, not absenteeism. Who/what is responsible for lack of motivation? That's a hard question for many employers.

2) It makes weakly-supported assumptions about the proportion of claimed sickness which isn't genuine.

FALLACY: "Absentees are effectively stealing from their employers". Unless an employer successfully prosecutes, this is a "guilty until proven innocent" stance (ie it's invalid). Would jury members be able to keep straight faces?

FALLACY: "High absenteeism during World Cup finals proves the case". All it proves (if true) is that absenteeism correlates with some football matches. It doesn't prove anything about harm to the economy.

FALLACY: "Absenteeism signifies a bad attitude". Or it may signify merely that many workers are fed up with excessively long working hours, unpaid overtime and/or absurdly low holiday entitlements.

FALLACY: "Everyone needs to be vigilant". The implication is that absenteeism is a huge problem affecting "everyone". A bigger problem may be the vast number of people who go into work when they are genuinely sick (spreading the illness or endangering others).

See also: Why phoning in sick is good for the economy >