New Zealand workplaces more stressed and anxious: Time to extend sick days?

Extending the minimum five days of sick leave for employers in New Zealand is not on the Government's agenda, despite a spike in stress and anxiety in the workplace. 

Research by Southern Cross and Business NZ has revealed the findings of a survey about health and wellness in companies across the country.  

It found that a net 25 percent of businesses surveyed reported an increase in general employee stress and anxiety, compared with 14.3 percent in 2014. 

It also found employee absence cost the New Zealand economy $1.79 billion in 2018. But fewer staff turned up to work sick, which Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope attributes to a shift in workplace culture. 

"The direct cost of absenteeism is between $600 and $1000 per person a year, and while this is a substantial cost, businesses need to recognise the importance of creating a culture where people feel they can stay at home when they are unwell."

E tū assistant national secretary Annie Newman said it's time to extend sick days to beyond the minimum five days, because we shouldn't be complacent with germs being spread around the workplace.  

"People are unwell often because they are overworked," she told Newshub. 

She explained how people who are earning less tend to have to work longer hours, and therefore "are not living a healthy life". 

"That means you are more likely to get sick... If we want less stress, we have to treat workers as human beings with decent incomes."

The Employment Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.
The Employment Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo credit: Newshub / Anna Bracewell-Worrall

The Employment Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said on Thursday that extending the minimum five sick days for employees is not on the table. 

"It's not something that's on the Government's work programme, but employers who want to run a healthy and safe workplace may want to take into account the amount of sick days that they do provide so that their workers are healthy, safe and have good wellbeing."

Some industries provide more than the minimum. Nurses are entitled to 10 days sick leave for the first twelve months of employment, and 10 working days for every 12 months following. 

While that protects them from catching and spreading illnesses in hospitals, Newman said it shouldn't be taken lightly the kinds of illnesses that spread through the population by workers in other industries. 

She said people working in the service industry should be given additional sick leave.

E tū's Annie Newman.
E tū's Annie Newman. Photo credit: The AM Show


Southern Cross Health Society chief executive Nick Astwick said last year there has been a growing number of sick days taken - the average Kiwi took 4.7 days off. 

"At the national level, that's about 7.4 million sick days and cost businesses $1.8 billion. It is a big number and a cost to business," he told The AM Show. 

"But what's pleasing, is that we're certainly seeing is that cultures are changing and leaders of businesses are saying, 'If you're sick, stay at home'."

He said more employees are staying home to take care of their kids and also taking time off for their mental health wellbeing. 

"We are seeing businesses focus on the human and not just the employee. The ones that are doing that very well are actually improving the amount of absenteeism and the engagement and loyalty."

Employment lawyer Peter Cullen.
Employment lawyer Peter Cullen. Photo credit: Supplied

Employment lawyer Peter Cullen said it's a good thing that people who are sick aren't going to work. He said it's better for people who are at work not to have sick workers present. 

Cullen said extending the minimum sick days would not be easy, however, because small and medium businesses might not be able to afford it. 

"Whilst it might be a good idea to help people to cope when they're away sick, the other side is that little businesses would struggle," he told Newshub. 

"It's important to care for workers and assist them, but there are competing factors."

Some businesses have reduced the working week for employees to four days instead of five to improve wellbeing. 

New Zealand trust company, Perpetual Guardian, trialled a four-day working week for employees in February last year and made it permanent after the trial. 

No changes were made to employees' salaries and working days weren't made longer.