The Ethics Of… Chucking a Sickie

For those who don’t hail from the great southern land, it was Australia Day last Tuesday. Our national holiday celebrating the creation of our great nation, its people, its achievements and its spirit in general. And in true respect for these things, we generally spend it by getting wasted, sunburnt, gruffling down as much BBQ as dignity will permit, and stubbornly ignoring the Aboriginal population we stole the joint from in the first place.

But apart from the whole ‘celebrate national unity on the exact day we screwed over the original owners’ thing, Australia Day has a couple of other weird features – because it’s always held on January 26th each year, Australia Day is one of those fascinating public holidays which moves. As a result you’re never quite sure whether you’re going to get a three-day weekend or end up with a day off in the middle of the week that you’re not quite sure what to do with.

That’s exactly what happened this year when the holiday fell on a Tuesday, and workers across the nation found themselves with the irritating choice of either taking a day of leave (where possible) to make something of the long weekend, or else have a normal weekend, come inn to work on the Monday, and then have a random day off that you can’t do anything good with.

Sure this is a class-A first world problem, but it’s one that’s irritating enough that nearly 200,000 Australians this year alone decided to take the deceitful, thieving and potentially career threatening third option: they pulled a sickie.

You all know the procedure; first you get your head into the game and nail down your story. What am I going to be sick from? What illnesses don’t show too many early symptoms so no one gets suspicious? What’s disgusting/infectious enough to get me the day off but no so serious that I’m going to have to go to the doctor? Next you find some way of making yourself sound sick, maybe hang your head and shoulders off the bed, peg your nose for that sinus-full-of-phlegm sound, or perhaps you’ll go all out with an all-moaning all-coughing performance to really sell it. Then it’s time for the all important call – hold your nerve, admit to nothing specific, and offer to come in anyway despite sounding like you’re having a brain hemorrhage, and you’re home free! A free day off, a four day weekend and no hit to your precious paid annual leave.’s quite a lot of work. To get out of work. There’s probably a lesson in there but buggered if I’m going to pay attention to it.

From an ethical point of view I’m sure we’re all pretty clear that taking fake sick days like this is ‘wrong’, even if it fills in annoying gaps in long weekends. Those sick days are meant for times when you’re legitimately too unwell to come to work, designed to protect you and your colleagues from further illness. Any way you slice it taking them for purely recreational purposes violates your contract, steals from your employer, violates workplace agreements and breaks half a dozen moral principles from ‘honesty’ right through to that ‘accountability’ thing I’m always banging on about.

Worse, your selfish sickie doesn’t just screw over your employer but the entire economy as well. 200,000 people disappearing from their jobs for a day is no joke, and even that pales in comparison to the estimated 11.5 million fake sick days Australians claim every year. Add up the pay stolen, the labour lost and the flow-on effects to business productivity, and the grand total for our theiving ways comes to $3 billion Australian dollars every single year. Holy crap!

Get your punk arse back to work RIGHT NOW!

Given these unbelivably high costs you’d think the ethical case was pretty solid; sure you enjoy taking sickies but since they both spit in the face of basically every principle you can think of, AND come at an overwhelmingly high cost, there is no way in hell they could be justified, right?

Well… maybe.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: simple rules and principles like ‘honesty’ and ‘don’t steal’ are simplistic and stupid and I hate them. I think I’ve made that clear enough in the last couple of years that I don’t need to bang on about it again here. The far more compelling argument is the massive economic cost of fake sick days. Sure they might bring you some enjoyment but stacked up against a $3 billion cost that crap ain’t going to fly.

But this argument only works if you buy the line that you owe someone this money in the first place. Quick question; why do you work? To get paid, right? Some of us might be lucky enough to enjoy our work and many more are throw themselves into it with determination and zeal, even if it’s not their favourite thing in the world. But if money wasn’t a thing and you could do anything you wanted, then odds are you wouldn’t be going to work – and if you love your work so much that you still would, then you’re not likely to be sneaking a fake day off anyway. No, for the vast majority of people in Australia at least, work is about one very simple thing: getting paid. And why do we care about getting paid? Well there’s basic survival, but since most of us lucky 1st worlders don’t have to worry about that, it’s more about being able to do things that we each enjoy in life. The same things that we do when we chuck a sickie.

The point I’m making here is that powering the economy isn’t the point of why we live; the economy only exists to help us live better. You don’t live to work, you work so you can live – if you can find a way to increase the amount of living you can do then why on earth wouldn’t you? Sickies may cost the Australian economy $3 billion dollars each year but that money doesn’t just disappear, it goes right into your pocket in the form of free time; the exact reason you were working in the first place.

*sigh* If only I could be back in the office. A few solid hours doing spreadsheets would really spice life up a bit.

Of course that’s all very well and good, but the fact remains that this extra $3 billion of free time is stolen right out of your employers pocket. But this arguement assumes that your employer had some sort of inviolable ‘right’ to that money in the first place. And is that necessarily true? It definitely is in a legal sense – sickies clearly violate contractual agreements and government regulations – but since ethics has nothing to do with the law, that’s irrelevant. And once you remove the legalities then what we’re basically left with is a simple question of competition; how much can I get in return for the services I supply my employer?

What you’re essentially doing when you chuck a sickie is increase the value of your services – one extra paid day off per year for the same work. Is there anything ethically wrong with that? Given that the Australian government seems so gosh darn keen on free markets – rolling back regulation and letting everyone compete for what they deserve – then taking advantage of a loophole to increase your bargaining power sounds like exactly the sort of thing they would support! If there’s been one lesson out of the market in the last few decades, it’s that it’s nothing’s illegal unless you get caught.

But even if sickies make sense within the context of the market, there is no denying that the business owners are the losers out of this. In particular if you work for a small business or in a position crucial to the function of the rest of the company, then your unscheduled day off could cause some serious harm not only for the owner but everyone else that works for them as well. And if you have a boss that genuinely treats you fairly and looks out for your interests, squeezing them for extra pay is quite the dick move. On the other hand of course, if you work in a giant multinational that views its employees as slightly more disposable than bin liners, in a position where noone even knows you exist, or for a manager who seems to be on a crusade to alienate everyone around them, then the harm isn’t exactly a massive issue now is it.

“Oh yeah sure, I’ll be absolutely CERTAIN to go the extra mile for YOU, boss.” – Not this employee

But what about the economic cost of all our slacking about? I might argue that the missing $3 billion just ends up back in our pockets, but days off don’t drive the economy and as I admitted befroe, that economy is pretty important to our overall quality of life. And sure that sounds like a pretty compelling argument. $3 billion isn’t exactly a small sum after all, so surely that must represent some serious damage to our… what’s that? The Australian GDP was $2.22 TRILLION in 2013? But that would mean that all our sickies contribute to 0.13% of the Australian economy, significantly less than the $8.4 billion lost annually through corporate tax evasion which some free market economists actually seem to think is a good thing. So even if we convinced ourselves sickies are somehow a threat to the economy, it seems like there’s some much bigger fish to go after first.

However there is one more factor that may make the costs of sickies outweigh the benefits, and that’s the risk to your career. So we’ve decided that the law is irrelevant to ethics, and that taking a sickie can be justified as an attempt to leverage your position in the market for better pay. All is well so far. But the trick here is that if we choose to ignore the law on this matter then we can no longer rely on it for protection either, meaning that if you are caught out taking your beloved sickie your job is going to be in serious jeopardy. And given how important that job is to being able to live in our current economic reality, with serious implications to the wellfare of yourself, your family and those around you, that could be a very serious cost that could well outweigh the fleeting benefit of a sneaky day off.

However it is still just a risk, not a certainty. And since everyone who does chuck a sickie is well aware of it, this can really be passed over as a mere practical factor to be managed rather than an issue of principle to be seriously considered. So fellow Australians ignore all those who tell you that the humble sickie is a terrible, thieving drain on your poor innocent bosses, the economy and the nation as a whole, because those argument simple don’t hold up. The costs of this great national past time may be great, but they buy us the very thing the economy exists to provide, do us no great harm in the grand scheme of things, and what few moral principles they violate are not worth noting in their simplicity.

But this is an institution that must also be respected! Minimise the costs of the sickie wherever possible; don’t leave your boss or colleagues in a bind, don’t be excessive or blatant in your sickies, nor get caught and risk your livelihood in the process.

Respect the sickie, be mindful of your context and enjoy your stolen long weekend secure in the knowledge that is – or at least, probably is – ethically justified.


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