Saturday 01 April 2023

But, come on, are you really that sick?

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

There are certain working conditions which most of us take for granted as a population: our very generous amount of paid vacation leave (just check with other countries if you have any doubts), the sheer number of public holidays (which often leave many non-Maltese gobsmacked – what? another day when everything is closed?) and the half days in summer enjoyed by all those who work with the public sector (which means that if you need anything sorted from any government department, it has to be done in the morning or you can forget it).

But probably one of the most advantageous aspects of being employed in Malta (whether with a private company or the public sector) are the number of paid sick leave days which everyone is entitled to by law. As things stand, employees are permitted to take up to two fully-paid working weeks of sick leave per year, less any sickness benefit they may be entitled to under the Social Security Act. Employees must produce a medical certificate to prove they were sick, and many employers insist on having their workers assessed by their own company doctor.

It is a very good entitlement, and one which we sometimes take as a given, not realizing that in some countries paid sick leave, especially in the private sector, can vary according to the companies’ discretion, collective agreements and other criteria. Like anything which has been there for as long as anyone can remember, it is also something which is almost “untouchable” as far as Maltese employees are concerned.

So when the Malta Employers’ Association came out with their proposal this week it understandably created waves. The MEA said: “Many companies are concerned about the increased incidence of sick leave – in particular, sporadic sick leave linked to weekends. As happens in other countries, the first day of sick leave should be unpaid and treated as a waiting day.”

The first to come out against this proposal was the General Workers Union which objected strongly, saying “it would turn back time to a period when workers were exploited and abused.” It said that if the MEA had any concerns about the implementation of sick leave, it should address them directly.

The Malta Union of Teachers also expressed its shock at the mere suggestion of what it called “regressive measures” and pointed out that “treating employees with suspicion and increasing monetary burdens of the unlucky ones who fall ill, on the other hand, is certainly not the way forward.”

Now, to be fair, the MEA does have a point about the abuse of sick leave. All those who are in private industry (and probably more so in the public sector) know that Mondays are especially notorious for the number of people who “call in sick”. The British describe it as “taking a sickie” or a “duvet day”. In Maltese we have our own way of suggesting it oh-so-casually to one another when someone is not really sick, but just does not feel up to going to work after a heavy night out, and it has become part of our idiom… “u ejja, ħudha sick ghada (oh come on, just call in sick tomorrow). The point is that no one is shocked or bats an eye at the fact that, in reality, we are actually cheating our employer by claiming to be sick when what we really have is a major hangover and lack of sleep caused by too much excess.

In fact, it is taken so much for granted that I recall that a few years ago a couple of DJs got into trouble by laughingly suggesting it to their radio listeners.

When employees make a habit of calling in sick to recover from the partying of the night before, it is simply encouraging a culture where one’s obligations and responsibilities towards one’s place of work takes second place to one’s leisure time.

So, in that respect, I can understand where the MEA is coming from. However, what they are suggesting does not make sense for one simple reason: if someone was going to call in sick for just one day and is suddenly told that the one day will be unpaid, it is obvious that their reaction will be to call in sick for at least two or three days instead. In other words, it is hardly going to be a deterrent, instead it will encourage more sick days which will in turn affect productivity and the smooth running of the workplace even more.

I think the curbing of abuse needs to be tackled in another way, by giving incentives rather than by “punishment” – so why not find a way to reward those employees who hardly take any sick leave at all? In my many years as an employee it always struck me that some managers fail to deal properly with human resources issues because they tackle these type of abuses unilaterally, rather than zooming in on the staff who are being a problem. So, for example, this meant that if a couple of people were not following the company rules (or, as in this case, abusing of their sick leave), the entire staff complement would receive a sternly-worded email about the said transgressions and how they would no longer be tolerated. What on earth is the use of that? I could never understand the point of this and always considered it as a kind of cowardly cop-out: why not call in the people who are not following the rules and deal with them face to face rather than tarring all the employees with the same brush?

The abuse of sick leave is a reality, it’s true, but it needs to be tackled head-on by dealing personally with the culprits. If as a company or a government department you have a few employees who regularly and blatantly call in sick on Monday (or Fridays, which is another notorious sickie day), then the solution is to speak to them personally. I tend to agree with the MUT that treating all employees with suspicion is highly insulting and not conducive to a healthy working environment.

Because while there may be those who do call in sick because they just cannot drag themselves out of bed after a weekend of partying, you might equally have someone who is genuinely sick and just needs one day to feel better.

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