Something slightly strange has been happening over the past few years in the workplaces of this country. It appears that fewer of us are actually working. That may be because so many of us are taking time off because of illness: real or imagined. It may be because the bosses have become so much more relaxed about what we are learning to call WFH. Working From Home. Or it may be something more fundamental with longer-lasting consequences. Perhaps the very concept of the five day working week – which was born in this country way back in the late 19th century – has simply had its day. And if that’s the case is your reaction: why not? What’s so special about working five days out of seven in the workplace?
Let’s deal first with the development of what some observers are calling “Sick Note Britain”. That is based on new figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which reveal that the average worker took 7.8 days off sick over the past year. That’s the highest number since 2008. You may feel it’s not shockingly high but perhaps we need to be a little wary of that word “average”.
The Taxpayers Alliance, which keeps an eye on how government – national and local – spends our money has calculated that this means public sector workers took almost twice as much sick leave as those in the private sector. Most of them cited more minor physical ailments such as back ache or neck pains, as well as mental health issues. A report in the British Medical Journal's Evidence-Based Medicine said three-quarters of employers have recorded a big increase in “stress” as the reason given by employees for absence.
John O’Connell, chief executive of the Alliance, thinks there is a clear link here to the number of days people now spend working from home, which has “remained the norm for so many of us since it was commonly adopted during the covid pandemic”. He suggests that the back-ache and neck pain comes from working on a computer on a sofa and missing out on the journey to work. Or the mental health difficulties are the result of cramming your work and family life - with all the chaos that often entails - into one small space, with nowhere to go for relief.
This, he says, should be seen as the urgent responsibility of ministers and managers who, for decades, have wilfully ignored the problem: “Office culture in the public sector”, he writes, “is too often focused on looking after the perceived needs of the staff and avoiding confrontation with the unions, rather than the quality and efficiency of the service that taxpayers pay them to provide.” Research by his own organisation shows that “proper processes for managing sick leave are often completely ignored in the public sector. In the Ministry of Defence, for example, more than 35,000 periods of sick leave in excess of seven days were taken last year without a single sick note being asked for or supplied.”
The Office for National Statistics says public sector workers are paid on average around £30,000 - seven per cent more per hour than their private sector counterparts but they typically work fewer hours - 36 against 37 hours per week - as well as having higher pensions.
O’Connell writes in the Mail: “Sick note Britain is hobbling our economy, making public services unnecessarily expensive and forcing up the tax burden. In the private sector, it's a major drag on Britain's flatlining productivity, which in turn puts a brake on growth… The public sector should now be expected to lead by example - cracking down on excessive sick leave, putting proper processes in place and making sure they're followed. Council and civil service managers should also consider whether it's time to end the ridiculous work-from-home experiment that increasingly seems to have undermined the efficiency of our public services, provided worse value for money for taxpayers and failed to become the promised panacea for the health and wellbeing of public servants. They work shorter hours, get paid more, receive more holiday and don't even have to turn up to the office. Yet still, state employees take more time off sick.”
There is, of course, a different view of WFH from the other side of the political spectrum. Prof Christine Grant, an occupational psychologist at the Coventry University Centre for Healthcare Research, has written in the Guardian about her own research which looks at why Britain “should have become the WFH capitol of Europe, given that in some areas the British are the hardest working employees of all the European countries." She concludes that it’s likely to be a combination of factors.
One of them is that the UK was already within the top five countries for remote working before the pandemic: “By 2021,” she writes, “more than half of Brits were saying they’d like to work from home at least some of the time – and given the UK’s low unemployment rate, employers are incentivised to offer remote or hybrid working where possible to attract and retain staff.”
In a recent poll a third of UK office workers said they would quit if they had to return to the office full-time. She compares that with Spain where unemployment is far higher and working from home is far less common. She says it has helped, too, that trade unions and organisations here such as Acas and the NHS have shown their support for working from home and provided resources and guidance.
But she warns that caution should be exercised in comparing mandatory working from home during the pandemic to WFH when employers “have more time to work closely with individuals to ensure that the practical and psychological needs of home working are fully considered.” There are, she says, “well documented concerns about WFH full-time – from fuel bills to social isolation. Younger workers are more likely to prefer travelling into work to meet people, and to benefit from networking and mentoring. A hybrid approach can help those issues and retain productivity alongside wellbeing for workers.”
But that, she says, also requires the bosses to adapt: “Line managers, who are key to the success of managing and monitoring working from home, need to focus on developing trusting relationships and utilising all types of communication methods, including on- and off-site training, and appropriate accommodations where necessary”.
Professor Grant is not alone in prophesying that this may be just the start of the WFH phenomenon. Constantly improving technology – including the dreaded AI – will surely lend strength to those who ask: “What’s the point of trudging into the office every day when I can do the job at home?”
Is that a question you ponder or are you one of those who have already reached a decision? Are you spending less time in the office and are you enjoying it? Or does the idea of working from home fill you with horror?
Let us know.