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More sick days, more problems? Survey reveals challenges of increased sick leave for businesses in New Zealand

Friday , 3 November 2023 by Sue Hamilton

New Zealand’s increased sick leave entitlements are giving businesses new issues to balance, with evidence some employees could be viewing those extra sick days as leave they should take when they’re feeling well.

The issue has been identified as part of the 2023 Workplace Wellness Report, released by Southern Cross Health Society in partnership with BusinessNZ. Undertaken every two years, the report is the nation’s most comprehensive study into workplace wellbeing.

Now in its sixth edition, the report has looked at the issues that have emerged since minimum sick leave entitlements doubled from five to 10 days per year in July 2021.

It found the average rate of absence from work in 2022 was the highest ever at 5.5 days per employee. This compares to a range of 4.2 and 4.7 days for 2012 – 2020.

When those figures are projected across New Zealand’s entire workforce, the increase in average days lost per employee means the time lost due to absence in 2022 is close to 10 million working days. This is a significant increase on the 7.3 million days in the 2021 Workplace Wellness Report.

While Covid-19 and the mandatory isolation requirements that come with it continue to impact absence results, the report found the pandemic may not be the only influence on the 2022 numbers.

One factor that has climbed the list of drivers of employee absence is “paid sickness absence days being seen as an entitlement by staff suspected to not actually be sick”.

Now seventh on the list, this driver was near the bottom of the list in 2020, before the increase in minimum sick leave.

This factor was more prevalent for manual workers in previous reports; however, the 2022 results show an increase for both manual and non-manual workers in this respect.

These results may be due to some staff seeking to maximise time away from work, however, Southern Cross Health Society CEO Nick Astwick says the relationship between the increased sick leave entitlements and employee absence rates is one that’s influenced by a range of factors.

“The pandemic has had a huge effect on the workplace and one of its biggest impacts has been the change in people’s attitudes towards working while unwell,” he says.

“Once upon a time, many people had a ‘soldier on’ mentality about working while sick but the pandemic has made us all better at recognising that we should rest and recover when we’re unwell.

“Obviously, Covid-19 and the need for people to isolate while they have the virus has meant people are having to take more sick days, too, especially for those who have children to care for. The increased sick leave entitlements make it easier for people to do that.”

Astwick says other influences can be at play when it comes to staff absence rates, such as an organisation’s culture and overall work environment.

“The relationship between increased sick leave entitlements and absence rates isn’t straightforward, especially when that increase in entitlements comes during a worldwide pandemic,” he says.

“While it’s a good thing that staff are getting that extra time to recover from illness and people are better recognising the need to stay away from work when unwell, our report shows businesses do suspect some staff are using that increased sick leave as regular leave.

“This finding demonstrates just some of the challenges our businesses are facing in balancing doing the right thing by having people stay home when unwell, while also managing a workforce with more flexible work options in 2023.”