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Last week may or may not have seen “National Sickie Day”, depending on which right-wing newspaper takes your fancy.

“National Sickie Day” is nominally the date of the year when workers in the UK are most likely to call in sick, although there is little consensus as to when the date there is: a google search pulls up various articles laying claim to dates throughout January and February; one even claims it’s the second Tuesday in December.

Michael BriggsThe few articles I read were the usual cacophony of apocryphal, reactionary nonsense synonymous with the British right-wing media: high in anecdote, low in fact and glazed with a frenzied vitriol.

The indignation of the newspaper articles, however, is almost matched by the glee of the tidbits published on the various HR firms’ websites, ever eager to push the myth that the key to success in business is to pay them exorbitant amounts to dismiss half their workforce.  

This reliance of the pieces upon anecdotal evidence is a standard means of making a point for which there is no real, credible evidence. Even if we accept at face value that one of the (many) dates advanced as the purported “National Sickie Day” is genuinely the day of the year with the highest instances of employee sickness absence, what does that prove? It is in the nature of a data set with a population this size (33.67 million individuals in the UK workforce spread over 365.25 days per year) that the chances of every single day having the exact same number of workers calling in sick are many, many trillions to one. It is therefore entirely unremarkable that the number of people calling in sick will vary on a day-to-day basis and, in consequence, that one day will be higher than the others.

These articles take this statistical inevitability, augment it with a few “a friend of a “friend once told me” type stories and then add it to the cannon of fantasyland floating around the blogosphere dismissing large sections of the workforce as fickle, work-shy malingerers. Sections of the press should undertake a proper analysis or, better still, quote someone else who has: there is a wealth of academic literature both on trends on sickness absence and in seasonality of illnesses.

Blog by Michael Briggs, employment lawyer Glasgow

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