Paid To Nurse A Hangover?

One of my biggest office pet peeves is dealing with co-workers who come into the office sick. This is partly because I’ve dealt with not one, but two bouts of something akin to the black plague (which I caught both times from a sick co-worker) and partly because it just irks me that people would rather drag themselves into the office when they don’t feel well (to the detriment of those around them) than give up a precious PTO day. Although, with most American workers averaging two weeks’ paid vacation and maybe five paid sick days (if they’re lucky), I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised.

What did surprise me, however, is that workers in Belgium seem to be having the opposite problem: too many sick days. The Wall Street Journal reports,

“Belgians, like many Europeans, are entitled to extensive or even unlimited sick leave — and they tend to stretch the definition of the word. One study showed government employees in droves were calling in sick to pack before vacations and to sleep off holiday hangovers. Some government departments were averaging 35 days of paid sick leave per employee each year, more than twice the national rate and seven times the U.S. average.”

Unlimited sick leave? That’s practically unimaginable to an American. A day to sleep off that hangover? Priceless! But just as folks like me complain about too few sick days, Belgian employers complain about workers taking too many. Take the story of Fabrice Vandervelpen,

“In September, he called in sick. His girlfriend of six months had just left him, he says. A psychiatrist diagnosed him with depression and certified him for medical leave…

Mr. Vandervelpen says he spent his first two weeks off writing poetry at his parents’ home, where he lives. His mother, Marie-Jane, often took him shopping for new clothes, she says. He played soccer again with his local club, FC Burdinne, and volunteered as club treasurer. He visited a Catholic shrine in Banneux, Belgium, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1933.

In November, Mr. Vandervelpen bought a bright red Alfa Romeo MiTo for $30,000. Zipping through the hills and sugar-beet fields in his new car made him feel better, he says. He visited his ex-girlfriend and went to parties….

If the law didn’t mandate paid sick leave, he would have gone back to work sooner, says Mr. Vandervelpen. Hesbaye Frost paid his full salary for the first month he was off. After that, a government-backed insurance company picked up 80% of his salary, which the law guarantees indefinitely. “The government keeps €1,000 [about $1,357] a month in taxes off me, so why shouldn’t I get help when I don’t feel well?” he asks. He makes €2,500 before taxes.”

After my last relationship failed, I remember dragging myself into work on Monday with eyes puffy from crying and Kleenex at the ready. I could definitely have benefited from some “mental health” time to deal with my personal issues in private. And as Mr. Vandervelpen points out, he pays a great deal of taxes to enjoy the benefits that the Belgian government provides its workers.

But even if you pay taxes for it, is four months paid leave an abuse of the system? If this were happening in America, wouldn’t somebody out there be complaining that they would have to pick up more than their fair share to compensate for these sick workers?

Considering that at least 65% of workers overestimate how much they actually contribute in the workplace, I think that the gains in employee loyalty and satisfaction from a flexible sick-leave policy far outweigh the potential decrease in productivity. Not to mention we’d suffer from fewer colds.

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5 responses »

  1. In Japan, where I live, sick days are not encouraged. In fact, at my company, we have quite a lot of paid vacation but zero sick days. It’s no urban myth that the Japanese run around wearing dental masks once the weather drops. There are tons of different Vitamin C drinks and pills on the market. The message: don’t get sick because if you have a cold, you come to work. I can just imagine how annoyed my higher ups get at all of us sissy Westerners using vacation days when we have the flu. At my last American job, I got 5 sick/personal days, plus 4 weeks of paid vacation. It seems like bliss now. As for the Belgians? Whew.

  2. At my firm, there are too few employees for anybody to miss much work. I know that sounds like we’re all overestimating our importance, but there are 3 1/2 support staff to 4 attorneys, which is an unheard-of ratio. So everyone comes to work sick, and everyone gets sick. I don’t even know how many paid sick days/vacation days I have, because it’s irrelevant.

  3. Maybe I should try and get a job in Belgium. Anyway, sick days are a weird catch 22 when you are really sick. In most companies, when you go on ST disability, your sick days are used up first, then your vacation. Also, unlike vacation days, sick days can accumulate indefinitely, so it might be better to take sick days (but really take a vacation) – provided you can get a doctor’s note?

  4. A balance between the two extremes would surely be the solution. I think what America does wrong is that no one actually believes that you really are sick. A more accepting attitude coupled with additional flexibility would be just the ticket.

  5. Where I work we have sick days, but we also have “incidents”. If you take one sick day, that counts as one incident. If you take three sick days in a row, granted that only counts as one incident. But the difficulty occurs when, after three incidents in a calendar year you are “counseled”, after four you can be put on probabtion, and after five you can be fired. So if I have five sick days available but need to take one sick day a month, after three months I am screwed.

    So they give us sick days but rig the system so that if we take them we are punished. That’s why people continue to come in sick.

    I maintain that if you (the company) don’t want to pay for that number of sick days, then fine, give us fewer paid sick days. Just don’t punish us for using them as we see fit to keep ourselves healthy.

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