‘Only when I laugh, doctor’ – the importance of sick leave as a fundamental workers’ right 

Putting mental health first means taking the time to rest and recover when needed. But many people are familiar with the feelings of guilt and shame that can come with taking sick leave from work; the fear of judgment or disapproval from managers and colleagues which can make it even harder to return to work. 

A compassionate workplace can make all the difference, but can we do more to empower workers? In this blog post, our colleague Terry reflects on the importance of giving workers the right to take sick leave, not just to allow them to rest and recover in the short-term, but also to protect their long-term mental health. 

The disreputable tabloid newspapers, particularly those with a right wing bent, were raging at their latest moral panic a few weeks ago. “2.8 million People on Sick Leave” screeched the Daily Mail. Who’d have thought it? The Daily Mail getting its proverbial pants in a twist at the thought that people aren’t working damned hard. Anyone would have thought that a transgender woman had kick boxed their way into the genteel Mail offices supported by a flying phalanx of asylum seekers, pro-Europeans and anti-monarchists with a few Extinction Rebellion vegans for good measure. That would cause coronaries all round at the Mail’s bunker.   

I jest of course – it is sometimes too easy to lampoon the British newspapers and their preoccupations. But there is a serious story here, and something to be said around work-life balance, mental and physical health, and the need for us all to look after our wellbeing.   

Health and mental health in a post-Covid-19 world 

Amelia Hill writing in the Guardian newspaper, says: 

“A rise in long-term ill health has significantly reduced the size of the UK’s potential workforce across all ages since the pandemic. But it is a particularly large driver of the reduction in available workers in their 50s and 60s, with the number of 50- to 64-year-olds economically inactive – neither working nor job-hunting – up by 375,000 since Covid struck.”   

The Guardian places the blame squarely with what they describe as “ballooning NHS waiting lists” and “an exodus from the British workforce since the pandemic”.   

It’s true that the Covid experience has made many people reconsider their priorities. It’s all been a timely reminder of our mortality and a needed shift in focus towards community, friendship and kinship. And we live in an era of anxiety, fuelled by talk television, and endless internet algorithms that focus on negative news and facilitate “doom scrolling”.  Ecological anxiety, war in Europe, fears about artificial intelligence and international insecurity are all affecting people’s mental health.  

Whilst anxiety and depression are unwelcome intruders into our lives, how we respond to them can be a liberating and positive experience. We can use the zeitgeist of our times to re-evaluate our priorities.  

One of my former colleagues trained for a while as a Roman Catholic priest. Like the great “Doctor Who” actor Tom Baker, he’d quit before taking his final vows, but still took a great deal from his training, as part of which he had lived with an older and experienced priest. This old guy said that he had attended to many people on their death beds. There were lots of stories, some regrets and some amazing – even shocking – revelations, but he noted: 

“Not a single soul, not one person, ever says ‘Ooh, I wish I’d spent more time at the office’”.   

Now, I am not a religious person, but that Priest’s remark speaks volumes about people’s feelings when all is said and done on the strange road of human existence.   

Survival of the most fit 

In Protestant Britain, puritan groups since the seventeenth century railed against idleness as well as pleasures of the flesh (by which they meant just about every natural act, including eating, resting, warmth, comfort, sex and joy). This philosophy reached its nadir in Victorian Towns, where industrialisation had allowed for a new and, to us, shocking exploitation of the working class, in which children were used to pick cotton from moving looms, pay was obscenely low, food standards non-existent, and the free market oversaw a race to the bottom for standards.   

Some of the free-market philosophers tried to justify these inhumanities by citing the new, and at the time controversial, science of Darwin, who had published On the Origin of Species in November 1859.  Poor Darwin! He is often misquoted as having said “survival of the fittest” by which people assumed meant the nastiest and most brutal. Not so – Darwin actually referred to the survival of the “most fit”, in other words, creatures that were best adapted to their ecology. In practice, as any good biologist will tell you, this actually frequently refers to animals and plants that collaborate, co-operate, are in symbiosis and even non-invasive parasitism.  

Sick leave through history

Through the nineteenth century, an organised working class was in rapid development, and new groups and parties began to push back against the free market economics of the time. Trade Unions started agitating for sick pay and holidays. They were illegal at the beginning of the nineteenth century of course, but by the end were organising openly.   

Prominent socialists included Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter who preached a kind of Utopian anarchistic vision of local organic economies, market gardening, ecology, peace and internationalism, and predicted the liberation of women, gay people and disabled people in the future. Their message was tragically obscured by the horrific experiments in authoritarian government, left and right, during the twentieth century, but their gentle idea of emotionally intelligent society survived and was revived by the hippie movement and New Left of the late sixties and seventies, by anarcho-punks in the late seventies, and the free party scene of the eighties.   

Sick leave was, from the start, a major demand of trade unions that emerged during the industrial revolution. However, there were ancient precedents. In Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom, during which the Pyramids of Giza were constructed (loosely around 3000 BCE), the Pharoah Khufu arranged for his workers to be paid for sick leave (and had a form of state provided health insurance!).   

Sick pay in the UK depended for much of the twentieth century on the individual contracts between employer and employee, with unionised workplaces generally offering better conditions in this respect. But it was, perhaps counter-intuitively, a Conservative government, that introduced Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) in 1983. This was an important development, with a Trade Union Congress (TUC) survey finding that almost a quarter of workers receive only basic SSP if they are off work sick. This equates to around 6.4 million employees. The scope of SSP is contested.  The TUC notes that low paid, female, and black workers are more likely to be denied SSP through their employment circumstances, and many campaigning groups advocate for better and more comprehensive Statutory Sick Pay.

The importance of sick leave for workers 

In a compassionate organisation, sickness absence should be seen not as a liability, but as a means by which a diverse workforce manages its physical, emotional and mental health.  

As comfortable and supportive as we make the working environment, (and I am fortunate in having a highly supportive place in which to work), there will still be times when team members need to be away from work. Managers need to be aware of the needs of staff and appreciate that staff might need to take time out at times.   

Voluntary sector organisations often lead the way over both the private and public (statutory) economic sectors in providing a compassionate working environment and management structure. Sometimes this is called having a PAT approach or Psychologically Informed Environments. A PAT environment uses insights from psychology and the mental health professions to aim to maximise the potential of staff. And this means giving them time when necessary to look after their mental health.  

Many of the people who work at Second Step have lived experience of mental health issues, recovery or both. I freely admit to experiencing mental health needs at times, and this occasionally means having time away from work. I truly appreciate working in a framework where sick leave is an essential part of staff benefits. I am pleased to say that these days I do not need it very often, and when I do, usually just for a day or two. But it is there for wobbles and other glitches in the road of life. And I am thoroughly grateful that it was there in 2009 when I had a year of dreadful struggle with my mental health and needed quite some time off. I was away from January through May and September through November – so kind of a year in a way. I came out stronger for it, and my recovery from that experience was helped by the fact that work was extremely helpful. They kept me in employment, were kind and courteous and kept in regular touch. My manager, Cliff, kept in regular touch with my father, as for a while I stayed with my parents in Wales. I should also thank my GP during that time. He stayed in regular touch too, liaised with our HR department, and signed me off for a sensible period, allowing me to concentrate on therapy and recovery.   

I would like to see these sorts of compassionate policies be spread through the economy. Paradoxically, these approaches to sick leave and working life would empower people to stay in work much more than beating people and cutting benefits. With stress and anxiety generally reported to be impacting many peoples working lives, the dislocation caused by the Covid19 crisis also gives us a chance to change our economic preoccupations to a bit more fairness, equity and compassion. Trade Unions, campaigning groups and some politicians are beginning to argue for things to change along these lines.  

I guess it will be a long wait, as reforms always take a while, but whilst waiting, I hope for reasonable health for myself and enjoy working in an environment where there is a progressive attitude towards the frailties of being a human being.  

Becoming a psychological, adversity and trauma informed workplace

Find out more about what it means to be a psychological, adversity and trauma informed workplace, and Second Step’s work in this area, on our becoming psychological, adversity and trauma informed webpage.

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