MCs take a toll on firms' health too

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 1, 2013

LIKE all Singaporeans living abroad - in Japan, in my case - I've been following the haze situation back home with great concern.

At first, my concern was limited to the well- being of my family, friends and fellow countrymen, who have been regaling me with dramatic tales of parched throats, watery eyes and suffocation.

The day the Pollutant Standards Index hit a record high, a friend sent me a text message with the news: "401!! I feel sick. I think I'm going to take MC."

That was when I realised I should also be concerned about another casualty of the haze: Singapore's companies, which offer paid sick leave to most workers.

Sure enough, over the next few days, reports streamed in about more people staggering through the haze to their nearest doctors, asking for medical certificates (MCs) to excuse them from work.

Clinics run by Raffles Medical were reported to have given out 10 per cent more MCs than usual, while those under Parkway Shenton issued 5 per cent more.

News site CNBC even quoted a Singapore worker saying: "We have almost like half the staff on MC because of this haze."

While I'd like to believe that all the workers who took sick leave were genuinely suffering, there's always the suspicion that a few may just have been crying haze.

That led me to wonder exactly how much paid medical leave costs companies every year - and how much of that is taken under false pretences.

Under the Employment Act, employees are entitled to paid medical leave as long as they have been in their job for at least three months, have informed or tried to inform their employer of their pending absence and have obtained an MC from an approved doctor.

Each employee usually receives five to 14 paid sick days a year, excluding hospitalisation leave. Many companies also offer health benefits such as subsidising the cost of medical treatment.

While statistics for the cost of Singapore's medical leave are difficult to find, figures from other countries provide some clues as to what the damage might add up to.

A study in the United States last year by the Integrated Benefits Institute, a non-profit research organisation, put the cost of "lost productivity" - when sick workers excuse themselves from work or show up but perform poorly - at US$227 billion (S$288 billion) a year, or about 1.5 per cent of US gross domestic product.

Closer to home, the Malaysian Employers Federation said in December last year that the country's companies are losing RM9 billion (S$3.6 billion) a year - or 1 per cent of Malaysia's gross domestic product - due to workers taking sick leave.

Each of Malaysia's 6.5 million employees takes an average of nine days of medical leave a year, and the cost of each day of absenteeism is about RM100, the federation said. On top of that, there are the costs of having to temporarily replace sick workers.

The worst part is that many workers feign illnesses to obtain MCs, especially around public holidays, the federation added.

Simulating sickness is a problem even in workaholic Singapore. A survey last year found that one in five workers had taken ill-gotten MCs, mostly because they "just didn't feel like working".

Of these, about half said they would fake illness three or four times a year, according to the study by recruitment firm JobsCentral, which polled 3,299 employees and 256 hiring managers.

That compares with countries like Canada, where more than half of almost 800 workers polled in April this year admitted to playing hooky from work.

Fed up with medical leave fraudsters, some governments have gone as far as to take steps to penalise everyone who falls ill.

In Dubai, a new law kicked in this year requiring workers taking sick leave to pay 60 dirhams (S$20) for a doctor's note, in addition to the usual consultation fee of about 50 dirhams. The move sparked a rash of outrage among Dubai residents, prompting health officials to consider scrapping the rule.

While some companies here might be intrigued by the idea of doctors charging for MCs, such a draconian measure is unlikely to find favour.

But before businesses start complaining about the cost of extra MCs induced by the haze, they might want to consider another smoky expense most of them face daily: employees who light up.

Hiring a smoker costs an employer almost US$6,000 more a year on average than hiring a non-smoker, according to a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University in the US.

This includes US$517 in losses from increased sick leave, $3,077 in losses due to smoke breaks and US$2,056 in extra health costs. The total figure assumes five smoke breaks a day - which, as I understand from my colleagues, is quite a conservative guess.

Yet not all smokers are slackers: Some of my cigarette-loving colleagues have been among the company's best performers.

Similarly, firms here can try to look on the bright side of the haze. Rather than worrying about MCs, they could consider making work arrangements more flexible in times of crises.

This would save not only the health of their workers, but also their budgets from being bloated with unnecessary MCs.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 1, 2013

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