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  1. Stuart C Whitaker
  1. Dr S Whitaker, Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK s.c.whitaker{at}

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Sickness absence, or as it can be defined more precisely, absence from work that is attributed to sickness by the employee and accepted as such by the employer, remains high on the agenda for governments in the European Union (EU). Over the last decade most EU governments have implemented legislation that changes social security payments for the initial period of sickness absence.1 This has had the effect of transferring the initial cost of sickness absence away from the taxpayer to the employer, who it is thought will have more direct control over absence from work. In some countries the cost of the initial period of sickness absence has also been transferred back to the employee by, for example, removing payment for the first day or two of any new period of sickness absence, reducing the level of sickness benefit paid, and in some circumstances by changing the employment status of some groups of employees from direct employees to self employed status, where they are responsible for their own sickness absence and other labour costs.

In addition many EU governments have introduced programmes aimed at encouraging long term absentees back into work and making more stringent the medical standards required for early retirement on the grounds of ill health. In Denmark, for example, the government introduced a programme called “social engagement of companies” aimed at improving the situation for long term absentees and reducing exclusion from the workplace. In Norway the government and the social partners agreed a national campaign to reduce absenteeism.2 In the Netherlands, in 1994, the Dutch government passed legislation that requires employers to engage certified occupational health services in order to help them manage sickness absence better.w1 w2 In the UK the government has taken additional steps to try to reduce absence from work …

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