August 21, 2004

Leave it out

I'm going to be back at work on Monday, if all goes well. I've been away for nearly three months and I'm nervous about it: about going back, about the consequences of going back, about the consequences if it doesn't work out, about the consequences of getting nervous. I have had a anxiety-free eleven weeks, or at least one where the anxiety has not bothered me on a daily basis but has retired to the wings to make occasional appearances, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whenever the central character is feeling agitated or insecure. Man still delights not me, but I have had eleven weeks lying on the settee watching the cricket, or going to art galleries, or sleeping, or playing with the cats, and I have got accustomed to it, actually. But at the same time, I have been in libraries, from the British Library to South Norwood library to the neat and refurbished library at Scarborough, and I want to be back in a library, with its quiet and its aisles.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
As I go back, sick leave seems to be a growing preoccupation in the world outside, with the emphasis naturally on the assumption that it is largely about skiving public sector workers taking as many sickies as their union can help them get away with. I'm not sure whether working for Imperial College counts as public sector these days. It is as as far as I'm concerned, but not, I think, in the eyes of Richard Sykes. If it is, then I have at least done my bit to contribute towards the shocking statistics.

Or staggering, as Newsnight said last night of their figures which had BA employees taking seventeen days a year off sick. I tend to think the use of adjectives in news coverage is rarely advisable and this is especially so when industrial relations are concerned.

There was also the recent story about Tesco insisting that new employees will not be paid for the first three days of any period of sick leave, an innovation for which the adjectives petty and punitive could advisably be used. (Naturally it would always be possible to stay off work for a fourth day to recoup one's losses, but without leaving the section of the dictionary in which we have already arrived the word probation, for those new employees, may be helpful.) What we will have is bullying, and unhappiness, and people working when they should not do.

Which is the aspect that bothers me the most. Or, I think, the aspect that bothers me the most is that it goes unmentioned in any public discussion of the subject. There's a parallel: on any given day you can find stories in the mass media complaining about benefits that are paid out when perhaps they should not be, either because they are being claimed fraudulently or because the newspaper concerned doesn't like the morals or the nationality of the claimants. But all the benefits fraudulently paid or unreasonably claimed, put together, are a widow's mite compared to the amount of benefit legally and morally payable, to entirely upright citizens, which goes unclaimed. If we really want a reckoning, if we really want everything unpaid which should not be paid and everything paid which should be paid, then the public purse would be a great deal worse off.

And so it is with sick leave. Because people work when they should not do. All the time. Of course they skive and take days off when they should not. But they also work when they should not. They do this a lot. With sniffles, with serious illness, with stress. They work hours for which they are not paid and they work on days when they are supposed to be on holiday. They don't get any money for it, and they don't get very much thanks for it, and they don't get a Hero Of Soviet Labour medal for it. And they're the same people who take the sickies and get told they're costing the nation billions of pounds as a result. They may very well be. But far fewer billions than the nation gets from them when it should not, if they were playing by the rules.

It's why you end up with strikes over sick leave. It's the moralising people don't like. Everybody knows they shouldn't really take sickies and they can't really justify it straight up. But at the same time people know that they have a good attitude to work. They put in much more than the minimum. Much more than they could get away with. And they don't expect to get any credit for it. But when they get told that they're skivers, that rankles. It rankles, about one part in four, because they know there is some truth in that. But three parts in four, it's because they know that the real figures are on the credit side of the ledger. Yet all the emphasis is on the debits.

I've done it once, I think. In the first few weeks after starting my first job in Oxford. I took half a day's sick leave when I wasn't really sick and went to watch the cricket in the Parks or something. I suspect that in the seventeen years since, I've given back rather more than half a day in excess hours. The world owes me one, I reckon. The world probably owes me more than one.

Not to mention all the days I've worked when I was sick. I've been off now for eleven weeks. I've been sick every day of those eleven weeks. And I've probably been sick for every day of the two and a half years which went before them. But I worked every day of those two and a half years that I could. I didn't do it because I was a Hero of Soviet Labour. I didn't do it for Imperial College. (Dear God, I swear I did not do it for them.) Mostly I did it because I wanted to. I'm a librarian for the same reason. Because I wanted to. I work in what I think is the public sector because I want to. I understand that and accept it and accept what goes what it.

But don't be getting on my back and telling me I'm a skiver because I'm off sick a lot. Don't you do that. Don't you dare.


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