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Under the doona, but still at work

It’s the nation’s biggest health crisis in a century but workers’ sick days dropped off a cliff during COVID. Is it time for a broader review of leave?

COVID-19 has led to an extraordinary drop in sick leave among Australian workers with up to 35 per cent fewer calling in sick during the pandemic.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that absenteeism fell by between 37 per cent in May to 19 per cent in August, compared with the same months last year. The reduction in workers reporting sick leave in part reflects loss of jobs, and employees being on forced annual leave. But the drop also appears to reflect workers swapping “doona days” for sick days — staying on the couch, working on emails, and not lodging leave; as well as the absence of flu this year.

Blue-collar workers at physical workplaces also appear to have “carried on” in the early months of the crisis, showing up at levels well above those recorded in a normal year.

The ABS figures show the reduction began in April (30 per cent) and continued through May (37 per cent), June (32 per cent); July (21 per cent) and August (19 per cent).

The data confirms the experience of those working in the field.

Jon Williams, the co-founder of consulting firm Fifth Frame, tells The Deal that in the first few months of the pandemic, sick leave “virtually disappeared” despite the likelihood of an increase in mental health issues among those working from home.

He suggests that many people took a “doona” day and did not necessarily lodge a day’s leave.


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