NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 12, 2009

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.

Europe has long suffered from sick-day disease, and many European governments are trying to fix the problem:

  • The average European worker took off 11.3 days in 2005, compared with 4.5 days for the average American, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Paris.
  • The cost of those lost workdays to Europe's economy is sometimes as much as 1.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) annually, says Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) senior economist Christopher Prinz.

But changing Europe's sick-day culture isn't easy.  Half of all Belgians on medical leave say they suffer from depression -- the country has Western Europe's highest suicide rate.  "You can't contradict the opinion of a psychiatrist," says Dr. Quoidbach.  "It has to be obvious they're cheating."

Francois Lombard, 48, is one of three full-time sick-leave experts at SD Worx, a Brussels consulting firm and payroll processor.  His message, delivered in a slick PowerPoint presentation: Coddle, don't punish. Sixty-five percent of people on sick leave could be working, he says, but only 5 percent are proven cheaters.  Sending doctors to inspect, as the government is doing, is "useless and expensive," he says. "It's more efficient to motivate people to return to work."

Source: John W. Miller, "Belgians Take Lots of Sick Leave, And Why Not, They're Depressed," Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2009.

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