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Stoic folly?

06 February 2015

Occasional illness is a reality of working life, but too few of us protect our income against long-term sickness.

Brief periods of sick leave to recuperate from passing ailments, knocks and strains are a staple part of any workplace. Of course, occasionally ill health is more long term and employees need to take extended periods of time off work. However, recent research suggests that not only do large numbers of Britons conceal from their employees more serious health conditions and fail to take time off – but very few have adequate cover for loss of income.

Research for life insurer LV= has uncovered the degree to which Britain fears taking sick leave and is prepared to conceal ill health. The research, from a sample reflecting the UK workforce, suggests that as many as 800,000 Britons have concealed a chronic illness – while five million have hidden severe stress or depression.1 The great British workforce, rather than flaking out at the whiff of a sneeze, a pang or a twitch, would seem to be soldiering on in spite of illness.

Richard Rowney, managing director of life and pensions at LV=, observes that public debate about sick leave among the British workforce often dwells on the cost to the wider economy rather than on the individual and the impact on their personal lives and finances. “While no one wants to think about getting ill, none of us are invincible,” says Rowney. “But the reality is that some people will need to be off work for a large chunk of time.”

Moral fibre

In fact, despite the old grumble that the ‘British disease’ is a decline of moral fibre, modern Britons emerge from the research as old-fashioned stoics, diffident about addressing health matters with their employers or in their own financial plans. And the reasons that people hide their illness are similar to those that prompt them to return to work before they have made a full recovery; they fear employers’ disfavour (38%) and for their wages (22%).

Certainly, long-term sickness can mean a serious loss of income – even for those with sick pay. Employers are only obliged to pay a statutory sick payment of £87.55 for up to 28 weeks, which, for the average UK worker, amounts to a £430 drop in weekly income.2 The research implies that almost 40% of workers could have lost income as a result of sickness; and only one in ten of those surveyed had a protection policy to replace income or provide a lump sum if they were unable to work.

So how do Britons envisage that they will provide for themselves and their family in the event of a long period of absence from work due to ill health? Half of those surveyed for LV= said they would fall back on their savings in the event of a loss of income. Worryingly, one in ten admitted that their savings would run out after less than a week. Just one in seven have enough savings to last up to a year. Most households will not have sufficient funds to bridge this income gap for a sustained period – and that includes higher earners too.

Income guards

With the average career spanning more than four decades, there are few who won’t at some point take time off in their working lives. Of course, not everyone who takes sick leave will be off for long periods. However, the stark reality is that very few workers in Britain have an adequate, long-term back-up plan in place that would protect their income if they found themselves unable to work. But a contingency plan, such as income protection, can offer peace of mind. “If our financial circumstances change due to illness, a contingency plan can allow us to focus on recovering rather than worrying about how to pay the bills,” says Rowney.

1 Research was conducted on behalf of LV= by Opinium Research, using an online panel of 2,003 Britons employed full-time or part-time, weighted to be representative of the British working population of 30.79 million employees. Of workers surveyed, 2.6% had hidden a chronic illness from their employer and 16.2% had hidden a long-term mental illness from their employer. These figures equate to 800,540 and 4,987,980 workers respectively.

2 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ashe/annual-survey-of-hours-and-earnings/2014-provisional-results/stb-ashe-statistical-bulletin-2014.html

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