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.