Alarmism about “sickies” obscures the fact that Australians tend to be generally hardworking.
Australia Day has a lot of traditions. There’s the backyard barbeque, the Sydney Ferrython, and the hand wringing over hungover employees chucking sickies.
Like clockwork, in the lead-up to the national holiday, articles emerge bemoaning how much of a hit the Australian economy takes due to absenteeism. Because this year the holiday falls on a Friday, there’s been a bit of a reprieve, but for at least one publication that just meant arguing Australia day should always be on a Friday.
So how much does Australia Day-related absenteeism cost? According to research by TSheets, in 2017 it was somewhere between $54 and $62 million in lost productivity. This figure was tabulated by multiplying the national average daily wage for full-time workers by the number of workers who took sick leave the day after.
The real cost of absent employees
But is Australia Day just an anomaly, or is taking a sicky really the national pastime so many fear it is?
According to research, also by TSheets, 48 per cent of Australians admitted to taking at least one day of sick leave when they weren’t sick. Just over 20 per cent said they did it more than once or twice a year.
The total cost of absent employees (that is from legitimate and illegitimate personal leave) is $33.06 billion a year, according to Direct Health Solutions’ annual absence management survey report. Talking to 2300 managers, they found that employees take an average of 9.7 days a year (9.5 in the private sector, and 11.4 in the public sector).
Taken together, these figures suggest Australia has a real problem that is harming productivity.
But wait. If you go a step further, and compare it with a report on unpaid overtime from the Centre for Future Work (an initiative of the Australia Institute think tank), the opposite conclusion begins to emerge.
The real cost of unpaid overtime
Polling a nationally representative sample of 877 workers, the Centre found that Australians work an average of 5.1 hours of unpaid overtime per week (5.98 for full-time workers). Assuming a 40-hour week, it’s the equivalent of over six weeks of unpaid work, per worker.
The estimated total cost of this labour is $130.7 billion; money that staff are effectively gifting to their employers.
Let’s put the figures together. If all Australia’s workers never took any type of personal leave (even when they were sick), but they also refused to work a second of unpaid overtime, employers would be be losing $97.64 billion a year.
Seen that way, Australians seem like very hard workers. But it’s still not a complete picture. What you’d really want is a meta-study that took into account things like contracts that stipulate industry-standard hours and expected workloads; the costs of presenteeism, and workplace stress; while factoring in the potential effects of culture, and macroeconomic issues like persistent wage stagnation.
Once you had that research then maybe we could all talk about sickies and unpaid overtime with some kind of authority.
National surveys, local problems
So the real lesson HR should be taking away is that national surveys aren’t that useful. They’re all based on self-reporting and not hard data. Your own analytics about these issues will be far more revealing.
And if your employees tend to take sickies after public holidays, read HRM’s 2017 contribution to the Australia Day tradition of talking about absenteeism – a guide to minimising it.
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