When Forbes Magazine ranked the world's healthiest countries in 2008, Finland ranked third and Greece didn't crack the top 15 [source: Van Dusen, Ferrey]. Yet in a study that examined sick days taken by workers in the European Union, Greece had the lowest percentage of employees taking sick leave, at 6.7 percent, while Finland had the highest, with 24 percent of workers taking a sick day in the previous 12 months [source: Gimeno et al.].
How can a country be ranked third for health when so many workers are taking sick days? The study's authors were hesitant to attribute the discrepancy between the countries to one particular factor without further research, but they don't think it's because the Finns are sicker. The health of industrialized countries is roughly the same, or at the very least, it's certainly not different enough to account for the vast gap in sick days. So your geographic location doesn't affect whether or not you get sick, but it can affect whether you call in sick or whether you trudge off to work.
The study found that workers in Southern European countries, such as Greece, Portugal and Italy, took far fewer sick days than workers in Northern and Central European countries. In countries with high levels of sickness absence, workers had better benefits, so not only was it more likely they could take a sick day with full pay, it was more accepted by a workplace. In Spain, for example, workers tend to be employed by contract and may lose their job if they don't show up; Spanish employees had a sickness absence rate of 11.8 percent, the sixth-lowest percentage of the 15 countries ranked [source: Fuller].
There's some subtle psychology behind a worker's decision to call in to the office. Workers have to weigh weigh the costs and benefits to calling in sick. They may consider issues such as these:
- Is sick pay available immediately, or is there a waiting period after which it kicks in?
- Does the illness or injury have to be documented by a doctor? If so, can a personal physician do this, or does a person have to see the company's doctor?
- How many sick days are available?
When that generosity isn't offered, workers are more likely to come to work sick. The United States doesn't guarantee paid sick days, whereas at least 145 other countries do [source: Heymann et al.]. As a result, another study that examined sick days in industrialized countries beyond just the European Union found that workers in the United States had the fewest sick days per employee per year, with five, while Poland had the most, with 26 days per employee per year [source: Osterkamp, Rohn].
When obstacles are introduced in locations that provide abundant sick leave, sickness absences fall as the measure of generosity does. In 1993, the Swedish benefit system was modified to include a "qualifying day," or a day with no pay before sick leave benefits kicked in. Researchers found that the number of sick days went down, but the average time people were absent increased [source: Voss et al.].
Still, finding some sort of balance would be ideal. In the United States, sick workers on the job cost more in lost productivity and health costs than absent workers do [source: Mason]. In contrast, sick days placed a burden of 4.2 billion euros ($5.2 billion dollars) on the Swedish economy in 2002 [source: Fuller]. Until that balance is found, stay in good health by reading some of the stories on the next page.