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Unhealthy conditions

'He lost his job for health reasons', goes the old joke: 'The boss got sick of him.' Kate Lawrence reports on the message behind management's new concern with employee health

If you cast your eye through the management journals of the past 12 months, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest threat to the nation's industrial competitiveness is the tendency of the British worker to take a sickie. From the 'Postie took 700 days off sick' headlines in the national press to the hours senior managers spend, absent from their desks, at conferences up and down the country discussing 'absenteeism', it would appear that the same old problem is standing in the way of Britain's bosses turning in a decent balance sheet - the lazy British worker.

But this is not all that the unfortunate captains of industry and finance have had to contend with. In August, yet another report about the quality of the British worker made national headlines. According to the report, Japanese inward investors have been turning up their noses at the poor skills and low quality of the workforce.

When it comes to Britain, it appears that the magic of those much vaunted Japanese management techniques just won't rub off. It must be a great disappointment to the special Department of Trade and Industry unit which has been hard at work selling Britain as the ideal site for foreign corporations to locate new businesses, on the basis that 'unit labour costs' in Britain are now among the lowest in Europe. (That's rubbish wages and working conditions to you and me.)

This kind of focus on the inadequacies of the workforce helps to shift the blame for mass unemployment and a failing economy away from the capitalist system itself. But more importantly, at a time when the only option left to struggling businessmen is to cut back labour costs and squeeze as much as they can out of every employee, the notion of the lazy worker can help to soften up reaction to redundancies and pave the way for tougher disciplinary measures within the workplace.

Of course, there is nothing new about employers blaming their inability to expand their profits on the individual failings of the workforce, although the image of the problem worker has changed. In the 1960s the greedy militant worker, personified by Peter Sellers in I'm Alright Jack, who would call a strike over the slightest change to the tea break, was set up as the biggest obstacle to British commercial success. In the 1990s it's the skiving council worker or the car operative too stupid to keep up with the technological revolution who is held responsible for the public sector deficit and the slump.

Today, when management starts talking about 'managing your absence', or Department of Employment ministers urge employers to spend more on training and become 'Investors in people', it can sound like someone is trying to do you a favour. Some chance.

Over the past few years, management professionals have become increasingly obsessed with the lifestyle and life experience of their workers. This includes problems with health, alcoholism, debts, marital breakdown, stress, smoking, HIV, and most recently sexual harassment. All of these, say the management consultants are issues which employers should be concerned about because each one of them at their worst can cause - yes, you've guessed it - absenteeism.

In the past few years employers at the cutting edge of personnel management have introduced employee counselling programmes. The slightly less up to date call them occupational health schemes. Their function is to help employees through personal problems which might have a detrimental effect on their performance at work. Your marriage might be breaking up, but you can be sure that with a visit or two to your counsellor you'll still be putting in your contracted hours. It all sounds very caring for the 1990s.

But the lower down the job scale you go, the clearer becomes the real business of employee 'counselling', as public sector workers have recently discovered to their cost. In July an Audit Commission survey reported that London councils had reduced absence levels by a third, saving an average £1.5m each. The methods used included clear targets for reductions. Presumably if the employer tells staff often enough that they are not going to get ill, they do not get ill. Other measures included making supervisors and line managers directly responsible for managing sickness absence, regular monitoring of sickness, training managers to deal with absence and improving occupational welfare services.

At Labour-run Camden council, staff now can be required to fill out a sickness form for taking just one day off. Meanwhile council workers who have regularly taken long periods of sick leave can be sacked even if their absence has been certified by a doctor. At Islington council, if a supervisor suspects a member of staff of skiving, they can be sent for a compulsory medical check from an outside medical adviser. At Tower Hamlets anyone who takes more than 10 days a year off sick or shows a regular pattern of absenteeism gets sent for 'counselling' from their manager. After two reviews, if they continue to take more time off sick without good enough reasons, they can be sacked.

Elsewhere, bosses more ahead of the game have dreamed up even better ways of meeting their sickness targets. For example at the Department for National Savings, attendance levels are assessed before a member of staff is considered for promotion or passing their probationary period. More recently Yarrow Shipbuilders introduced a scheme under which the less time employees take off sick, the more sick pay they get. Clearly it doesn't pay to catch anything more than a short bout of flu.

At the same time as risking disciplinary action, if you are unlucky enough to be off sick more than your workmates, your head is that much more likely to be the first on the chopping block when redundancies are announced. Last year a study by the research body Industrial Relations Services (IRS) found that in two thirds of organisations planning job cuts, employees who have poor attendance records are among those most likely to be dismissed.

Recently a much more straightforward way of knocking the lazy out of the British worker has caught the headlines. Rather than bothering with complicated counselling, more and more firms are now simply cutting sick pay. In a drastic revision of working conditions at Hoover's plant in Scotland, all new recruits are taken on as temporary workers with no sickness absence payments for their first two years. The banking sector has long had a reputation for better than average working conditions and rates of pay. This year Barclays slashed annual sick pay entitlement from two months to two weeks for all new recruits until they have clocked up two years of service.

These companies are not alone in cutting back what was previously considered a standard part of working conditions. In July the Financial Times reported a study which showed that while just nine per cent of companies had made cuts in sick pay schemes, nearly 20 per cent were considering doing so within the next two years. As the FT put it: 'Cutting sick pay is a very direct, if crude, method of attempting to control absenteeism or, at least, minimise its financial effects.' (1 July 1993)

Goodbye lifo

While making your plans to get into better shape, don't forget to leave some time to do something about your work skills. The IRS redundancy survey found one group of workers that 73 per cent of employers say would be unlikely to be made redundant - employees 'who can be trained for or who can adapt to other work'. Many firms no longer use the old 'last in, first out' (lifo) system for selecting redundancies, on the grounds that it fails to meet 'business needs'. This means retaining workers who are regarded as the most valuable to management. According to the IRS study, engineering firm Hattersley Newman Hender warned that 'lifo loses good people'. Manufacturer Magneti Marelli Electrical rejects lifo 'because we must ensure that those who go are those making the least contribution to the business'. Warrington Borough Council said 'now that the council has to tender for its service, it is important that we retain a flexible, trained, experienced and responsible workforce'.

Of course to get your training, you can no longer rely on your employer to train you at work. More likely, you'll be spending long hours after work in the company's open learning unit which is open to anyone - as long as they don't mind giving up what little free time they have left to do their training.

So the message is if you don't want to be the one with your head on the block, you'd better start shaping up both physically and mentally. Who can blame your employers if they want to get rid of you for being low quality material? Sign up to the Health Education Council's 'Look after your heart' campaign now, and while you are at it, book yourself in for an extra European language. Get well soon.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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