A healthy sick leave policy

A healthy sick leave policy

The subject of sick leave entitlement has been discussed in the past several weeks with employers voicing concern about more liberal policies the government seems to want to introduce. The introduction of a measure enabling parents to call in sick when their children are unwell has found the opposition of employers who insist the government should foot the bill for such a measure.

Another measure being planned by the Social Solidarity Ministry is the relaxation of sick leave procedures whereby one would no longer need to submit a blue certificate to the Social Security Department if the period of absence from work due to illness does not exceed three days. This change is justified on the pretext of cutting red tape for the public. However, many are not too convinced of the need for such relaxation of procedures.

Pierre Mallia, president of the Malta College of Family Doctors who served as a company medical officer for several years, argues the time is overdue for a policy on occupational medicine. This would deal with the prevention and treatment of illnesses and injuries occurring at the workplace.

Few doubt there are many cases of sick leave abuse that go unchecked because the reimbursement process may be too lax, no clear guidelines exist on how to detect and curb abuse and because different employers use different methods of dealing with the problem. Doctors expect not to be used as watchdogs to ensure that employees are at home and do not abuse sick leave entitlement when they report unfit for work.

The cost of absenteeism due to sick leave is high. In 2015, according to Eurostat data, the government paid €50 million in sick leave benefits – the highest in 10 years. Employers, doctors and the government need to work together to reduce the amount of abusive sick leave while ensuring that those who are genuinely sick are allowed to recover for as long as required.

Sick leave is a necessary benefit for all employees. If an employer did not tolerate sick leave for genuine cases, health problems would be accelerated and illness will spread, thereby lowering productivity and morale.

The desire to find a way for parents to look after their ill children is commendable but the measure first needs to be costed, adequately planned and managed to prevent abuse and not make employers foot the bill. If the government thinks such a benefit is required and affordable, it should be introduced in a very gradual way not to upset the delicate balance between costs and benefits to the economy.

Employers should not shy away from introducing their own procedures to discourage sick leave abuse by their employees despite any relaxation of processes by the Social Solidarity Ministry. Human resources officers should recognise the problem with sick leave abuse and intervene early before it escalates. Managers need to enforce sick leave policies and take action.

The government needs to be careful not to encourage the culture of entitlement that exists in sections of our community where individuals may believe that uncertified sick leave is an addition to their annual leave entitlement.

Only an occupational medicine policy agreed to by employers, unions, doctors and the government can effectively fight sick leave abuse.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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