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Too sick to work

How sick does an employee have to be to determine he or she will not attend work? The same question also applies to an employee who is already on the job and determines it is time to head for home.

What makes one employee stay on the job while suffering from an uncomfortable cough, for example, while another only has to feel “a little tickle” in the throat before he declares himself unfit for work?

How can you have one or two employees in an organisation with no sick days for five or 10 years, and in the same organisation others who somehow “get sick” at least once every-other month?

Just a few weeks ago the operators of a company providing call centre services, based at the Harbour Industrial Park, spoke about the problems employers, particularly in the so-called industrial sector, have with employee absences, noting that before setting up here they had been warned about Barbados’ bad reputation.

“When I was a client looking to put business in a call centre, one of the companies that I talked to, they were in Barbados and they were in Panama and they were in a couple other places… I asked, and because I was friends with some of the people there, one of the sales people said to me, ‘Stay away from Barbados. If it rains they don’t come to work, you can’t depend on them, they are prima donnas, they don’t like schedules. So I stayed away from Barbados, and put that work some place else,” Regional Vice President, Tony Jennings recalled.

Then there was the recent study which spoke of “an explosion of sick employees at the work place”, a situation that was compounded by an epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases on the island — lifestyle diseases.

So it would appear that the less than stellar attendance records of so many workers on the island may be the result of a combination of genuine health issues, as well as attitudes to work.

Whatever the reason though, Barbados pays a high price, both literally and figuratively. According to Minister of Health, in one department of his ministry — of all places — the situation is so bad that it averages 655 “absent days” each month, costing tax payers $54,972 monthly.

“So when you add all of these indirect costs, you can get a pretty good gauge of what absenteeism is doing to only one institution,” Inniss said.

On one front, Barbados needs to confront head-on the issue of lifestyle diseases, characterised by high blood pressure and obesity in a significant portion of the population. In a very real way this is also an issue of attitude, because in too many cases these health issues are the direct result of individuals simply refusing to do what they know is right in relation to diet and exercise.

There is also the not-so-insignificant number of workers who believe that they are entitled to six sick days a year — which has nothing to do with whether or not they are really sick. That’s in the private sector. In the public sector the number is considerably higher.

But it is not just a worker issue, since in too many instances owners and managers create the kind of work environment that makes employees feel sick with illnesses that not even the best trained doctors could diagnose.

The issue of employee absences has to be addressed nationally and on several fronts, and if we continue to just talk about the matter it will only get worse. Certainly, when a country has a problem with high employee absence in the midst of a recession where jobs are easy to lose and hard to find, it suggests deep seated issues that will require sustained attention.

The Harbour Industrial Park company we mentioned earlier recently reported a major turn around after two years of sustained attention, to the point where there are now overwhelmed with work and short of space to accommodate the new hires. If one company can do it, it suggests at the national level Barbados can do it.

But we state again, change will not come from talk alone!

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