Absence from work – Belgium

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Health and well-being at work,
  • Working conditions,
  • Published on: 20 July 2010

Guy Van Gyes

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Sickness absence in Belgium is considered as high, although comparative data over time are lacking. It has recently risen only slightly or has stabilised. No reliable data exist on the costs of sickness absenteeism. In recent years, more attention has been given to a preventive approach and psychosocial factors are growing in importance. This preventive approach is supported by the social partners, although they have differing views on the main rights and responsibilities.

Definitions and aims of study

Absence from work is frequently discussed in terms of its costs. These costs were outlined in a report published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) in 1997: Preventing absenteeism in the workplace. Since that time – as many reports of the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) and of the European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO) note – it has become an issue in many countries; one approach has been to try to reduce the costs by tightening rules on sick pay.

In addition to a focus on costs, sickness absence has been connected to wider debates on the quality of work in two main respects. Firstly, there is growing interest in well-being and health at work. Attention has thus turned to positive ways in which well-being can be promoted, with improved attendance being a possible consequence. Secondly, the concept of ‘presenteeism’ – meaning being present at work while feeling ill or being unable to work at normal capacity – has emerged. Presenteeism may mean that measured absence levels are low but also that there are hidden stresses and pressures on employees.

The purpose of this comparative study is to provide an overview of the extent of absence from work and policies for its management, and to place this overview in the context of wider debates on well-being and presenteeism. The report assesses the current picture in terms of the level of absence and how the problem is treated – purely in terms of cost or in relation to the quality of work. It also examines the effect of the economic recession on levels of absence and how the problem is viewed.

Absence is defined as non-attendance at work when attendance was scheduled or clearly expected. The specific focus is a period of absence lasting longer than three days; the comparative analysis seeks information on this level of absence but recognises that data may not always be available.

The study has two main themes: the extent and patterns of absence, together with any trends; and the means of control and policies towards absence.

Extent and patterns of absence

1. Broad patterns

Where data are sought on the extent of absence, please use if possible the definition given in the briefing note. If available data do not distinguish between absence lasting longer than three days and all absences, please provide the closest available figure.

(a) Please describe the main data sources for absence from work at national level. How are the data collected, and how is absence defined? Are the data broken down according to the length of absence? Which spells of absence are taken into consideration (e.g. three to 19 days and 20 days or more)?

In Belgium, employees’ absence from work is not systematically registered in administrative sources. The National Social Security Services, which register all labour output by employees in order to calculate the social security contributions, gather information on absent days from work, which are taken into account for the calculation of the social security contribution. However, during the first period of absence because of sickness, employees’ wages are normally guaranteed and paid by the employer. For blue-collar workers, this initial period is two weeks, while for white-collar workers, it lasts a month. This period when the employer continues to pay the wages is not included in the days of absence in the social security database, which in other words underestimates the absenteeism rate. The National Institute for Sickness and Invalidity Insurance (Rijksinstituut voor ziekte- en invaliditeitsverzekering, RIZIV) only has figures on the working days of workers for which it paid a primary sickness benefit (usually during the first year of absence) and on long-term sickness absence. In 2007, RIZIV paid sickness benefits for 26,875.09 days.

Each year, the research departments of Securex and SD Worx – two government-approved, but private-for-profit human resource (HR) service providers for employers (sociaal secretariaat van werkgevers/secrétariat social d’employeurs) – publish data on absenteeism in Belgium. Securex limits these statistics mainly to absenteeism related to sickness or accidents at work. SD Worx provides more general figures, which include sickness-related absenteeism, absence caused by a work accident, absence because of maternity or paternity leave, as well as justified (for example, forms of social leave) and unjustified absence.

The figures are based on the employee wages and social security data that the two organisations administer for companies. The Securex report 2008 contains data from 25,125 employers and 258,433 employees in the private sector, while the SD Worx 2008 study reports figures from 481,696 employees belonging to 14,232 private sector companies, including not-for-profit organisations. Both samples are considered as representative of the Belgian economy, excluding the public sector.

Although both studies contain a range of figures, the main results are based on the calculation of absenteeism percentages – that is, the total days of absenteeism multiplied by 100 and divided by the total annual working days. The denominator is the sum of all the days that an employee works in a year plus holidays. Incomplete working days are counted as a whole working day; this means that the work days of people working part time are also calculated as full working days. The data (see below) do not include the public sector and are not available as a full time equivalent (FTE), which means that the absence of part-time workers is giving a stronger weight in these data.

As the data of SD Worx are also used by the National Statistical Office and include more general figures, this report will cite them more frequently. In recent years, the Securex figures on absenteeism have been slightly higher (on average 2% or about 0.05–0.1 percentage points).

(b) Please state the average overall current level of absence either in terms of % of working time lost or number of working days a year. What has been the trend over the past five years?

After a slow but steady increase, the absenteeism rate stabilised in 2008 compared with 2007 (see figure).

Absence from work, 2002–2008 (% lost working days a year)

Note: For methodological background, see above.

Source: SD Worx and Securex

(c) Please provide a breakdown of absence by gender. What has been the trend over the past five years?

Absence is higher in the group of female workers, even when maternity leave is not included (Table 1). Between 2007 and 2008, the decreases in the all-absence figures are slightly greater in the gender groups than in the total as a result of a composition effect: the group with the higher percentage – female workers – is becoming more important in the total group of workers.

Table 1: Absence from work, by gender, 2004–2008 (% lost working days a year)
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Men – all 5.21 5.36 5.45 5.64 5.61
Women – all 8.19 8.43 8.72 8.94 8.90
Total 6.38 6.57 6.76 6.96 6.94
Men – sickness 4.33 4.48 4.52 4.69 4.66
Women – sickness 5.45 5.51 5.71 5.94 5.99
Total – sickness 4.77 4.88 4.99 5.19 5.19

Note: For methodological background see above; the figures do not include maternity leave.

Source: SD Worx

(d) Please provide a breakdown of absence by age groups (if possible, according to the following age groups: 15–29, 30–49 and 50 years). What has been the trend over the past five years?

The percentage rises with age, whereby the average frequency of absence is not higher but the duration of the absence increases with age (Table 2). Looking at the trends, an increase is particularly evident in the younger age groups in recent years.

Table 2: Absence from work due to sickness, by age group, 2004–2007 (% lost working days a year)
Age groups 2004 2007
15–25 2.74 3.19
25–29 3.09 3.35
30–34 3.42 3.76
35–39 3.88 4.15
40–44 4.68 4.65
45–49 5.76 5.85
50–54 8.41 8.25
55 13.78 13.74

Source: Securex

(e) Please provide any available estimates for the proportion of the total volume of absence a year due to short (3–19 days’ duration) spells and long-term absence (20 days or more). Have there been any changes in the prevalence of short-term and long-term levels of absence over the past five years?

Figures exist only for sickness absence. Both shorter and longer periods of absence show the same trend (Table 3).

Table 3: Absence from work due to sickness, by duration, 2004–2008 (% lost working days a year)
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
< 1 month 1.99 2.11 2.11 2.22 2.25
1 month or more 2.64 2.63 2.74 2.81 2.80

Source: SD Worx

(f) Please give the level of absence in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with fewer than 250 employees, compared with large organisations.

The frequency and amount of absenteeism is greater in bigger companies (Table 4). The duration of the absence has a U-shaped relationship with the size of the establishment (data not included in the table, see Securex report).

Table 4: Absence from work due to sickness, by company size, 2004–2007 (% lost working days a year)
Size of establishment (number of workers) 2007
0–4 3.31
5–9 3.96
10–19 4.46
20–49 4.99
50–99 5.44
100–199 5.75
200–499 6.49
500–999 6.06
1,000 7.56

Source: Securex

(g) Please provide the latest figures on absence levels by activity sectors.

No statistics exist according to the General industrial classification of economic activities within the European Communities (Nomenclature générale des activités économiques dans les Communautés européennes, NACE). Only partial figures are available on the sectors with the highest rate of absenteeism. These sectors are not defined according to NACE, but are based on the definition of sectoral joint committees, which play a central role in the Belgian system of industrial relations.

2. Causes of absence

(a) Please describe the main causes of absence as identified in national surveys. Are there differences according to gender, company size or sector of economic activity?

The statistics from SD Worx and Securex show a consistent difference according to workforce and company characteristics. These detected differences are related to sickness absenteeism.

In 2008, according to the SD Worx study, the average Belgian employee took 48.5 hours of sick leave. Women (56.3 hours) had a higher rate than men (43.7); blue-collar workers (62.9) had a higher rate than white-collar workers (40.7); part-time workers (57.7) had a higher rate than full-time workers (46.7). The highest incidence of sickness absenteeism was detected among night shift workers (65 hours). See also the remark above about younger and older workers.

As noted, the frequency and amount of absenteeism is greater in bigger companies. The duration of the absence has a U-shaped relationship with the company size. Sectoral differences (based on the sectoral joint committee definition) exist, but vary significantly according to the indicator (frequency, amount, duration). Combining frequency and average duration, the Securex study reveals the highest incidence of absenteeism among blue-collar workers in the chemicals industry.

The Securex study also shows that absenteeism is higher on particular days: in general, the first day of the week or the first day of the month, the start of school holidays and the start of the school year. According to Securex, the day before Saint Valentine’s day (14 February) in 2007 also showed a higher incidence – that is, 13 February.

The studies, which mainly examine morphological characteristics, are complemented with a range of research looking in more detail at the possible determinants of absenteeism. This more academic research, conducted by occupational psychologists and/or medical researchers, focuses very often on absenteeism of a longer duration and uses a complex design. Swinnen, Moors and Govaerts, 1994 established in the mid 1990s that four factors are the main causes of long-term absence from work of longer than one month: musculoskeletal disorders (28% of cases), accidents (17%), infectious diseases (12%) and psychological stress (10%). In one out of three cases, stress was at least partially responsible for long-term absenteeism. These kinds of results were also confirmed in the Securex report of 2007.

A Belgian study on job stress and well-being at work, known as BELSTRESS, was a multidisciplinary and longitudinal study running from 1994 to 2003, conducted by the Research Group Work, Organisational and Personnel Psychology (WOPP) of the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, KU Leuven). Regarding absenteeism and stress, the main conclusions were as follows.

  • Sick leave percentages in the secondary and tertiary sectors are similar but they are clearly less than in the public sector regardless of gender, occupational grade and duration of the sick leave.

  • Perceived high strain at work, especially combinedwith low social support, is predictive of sick leave in bothgenders for a large cohort of the Belgian workforce.

  • Job stress influences in a different way short, medium or long spells of sick leave. Job stress or its components predict in a direct way short spells of sick leave without the involvement of health or health perception in the causal pathway. On the other hand, for medium and long spells of sick leave, health and health perception are involved in the causal pathway between sick leave and job stress.

  • This study provides evidence that the psychosocial working environment influences long-term sick leave due to depression. Efforts to improve skill discretion and decision authority at work could help to prevent depression.

Other research (Godin and Kittel, 2004) showed, furthermore, that organisational change and instability have a clear effect on absenteeism lasting one week or more. This result was also confirmed in research on hospital nurses (Verhaeghe et al, 2006). Whether the changes in the work environment were perceived as a threat or a challenge made no difference to this effect.

(b) Please indicate the main occupational diseases and occupational injuries or accidents responsible for absence from work. Please identify and offer explanations for any changes that have occurred over the past five years.

Based on a sample of 94,098 medical controls by the company control doctor of sickness absenteeism in 2,550 enterprises, Securex concludes that medical reasons for absenteeism can be classified as follows: 31% musculoskeletal disorders, 27% respiratory system diseases, 13% digestive system diseases and 12% psychological problems. Psychological problems are a more significant cause of longer-term absence. Each of the categories is further specified in the Securex report.

3. Presenteeism

Please refer to the definition of presenteeism: ‘being present at work while feeling ill or being unable to work at normal capacity’. What data are available on its extent?

For example, a Dutch study asked employees, ‘during the last 12 months, did it happen that you went to work, even when you thought you should report sick?’ Almost two thirds of respondents replied in the affirmative. Please report on any data available in surveys of working conditions, presenting the wording of the questions used.

No national data exist on the extent of presenteeism. However, in a range of specific surveys on well-being at work, the question has been included, including the BELSTRESS study and survey.

The wording in the standardised written questionnaire of the BELSTRESS study was: ‘Has it happened in the last year that you have come to work although you were sick?’ Respondents could answer: 1) Never; 2) Once; 3) 2 to 5 times; or 4) 5 times or more. In a second question, people were asked for the reason. The options were: 1) I consider myself responsible for my work; 2) If I don’t work hard, I run the risk of losing my job; or 3) If one is not completely sick, one has to go to work. Multiple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers were possible in this second question. However, although these questions were included in the survey, they were not considered in the final report.

Costs and policies

4. Costs of absence

Are there estimates or studies on costs of absence from work? Please provide available information on:

a) Figures for costs of absence from work for employers. Please summarise how the data are collected, how costs are compiled (what is included in the costs and concrete data) and measured (e.g. costs of absence as a percentage of company production or as a percentage of GDP for the whole country).

Securex calculates the total amount of direct costs of the detected absenteeism for employers in the private sector; however, it is limited to absenteeism due to sickness. Its calculation is based on a simulation which takes into account the average absence, the average wage and the total FTE in the private sector. Direct costs means the wage that the Belgian employers have to pay in the first or primary period of absence – the so-called period of guaranteed wage, which as noted earlier is longer for white-collar workers than for blue-collar workers. Indirect costs such as the overtime of other workers or the hiring of temporary agency workers to compensate the absence, the administrative and managerial costs, and the loss of quality and productivity are not included. Professionals involved in absenteeism management consultancy, such as Securex, SD Worx and others, estimate this indirect cost at 2.5 times or 250% of the direct costs.

The direct costs are calculated in two ways: based on the gross monthly average wage and the employer’s labour cost (gross earnings plus premiums and social security contributions). The last calculation is used to estimate the total direct labour cost for the Belgian private economy. This figures amounted to more than €3 billion in 2008. Taking the 2.5 factor of the indirect costs into account, the figure amounts to €10.5 billion.

Table 5: Estimated direct labour costs of sickness absenteeism, Belgium, 2008 (€)
  Blue-collar workers White-collar workers Total
Direct labour costs 1,317,403,343 1,692,786,499 3,010,189,842

Note: Direct labour costs = guaranteed gross wage employers’ social security contributions holiday and end of year premium.

Source: Securex

The following criticisms can be raised regarding this estimate.

  • It is not clear how the calculation of absence in working days interferes in this simulation; for example, a day’s absence of a part-time worker is also calculated as one day, just like the day’s absence of a full-time employed person. The average wage and the total employment are based on FTE.

  • The calculated absenteeism percentage includes more NACE sectors than the average wage, which is limited to NACE C–K – that is, all of the private sector except for agriculture and fishing.

  • It is not clear how the step from gross wages to direct labour costs is made in the calculation. The same average gross wage is used, but the cost percentage rises considerably.

To conclude, the published figure is a rough estimate, which probably is to a certain degree an over-estimation, although the criticisms raised could also be due to the limited transparency of the simulation.

b) Figures for costs of absence from work for the social security system. Please summarise how the data are collected, how costs are compiled (what is included in the costs and concrete data) and measured (e.g. costs of absence as percentage of social security expenditure).

RIZIV publishes figures on the costs of employees on sick leave. It presents three types of expense data: primary sick leave of less than a year; maternity leave; and disability benefits meaning sick leave for more than a year. In 2007, these costs amounted to €998,675,055 for primary sick leave. Taking into account that the total social security expenditure in Belgium was more than €54 billion in 2007, the costs represent about 2% of the total budget.

5. National and company measures

(a) Please outline any recent measures at national level intended to reduce the costs of absence through positive policies. An example would be changed social security rules on sick pay. Are any specific actions or measures directed at long-term absence?

Recent changes in sick pay or benefits have been increases in the benefits, inspired by social or welfare motives. In a particular discussion on income compensation for sickness absenteeism, direct links were made with positive policies to combat absenteeism; this approach featured in the discussion between the social partners on whether or not to abolish the ‘carens-day’ for blue-collar workers. Traditionally, blue-collar workers did not receive wage compensation for the first day of (sickness) absence – in other words, they were not paid. It was a negative, penalising measure to combat absence at work. The historical roots of this measure lie in the period of the first industrialisation, when ‘drinking and boozing’ was considered a major problem among the working class. In recent years, several sectoral joint committees have been negotiating on abolishing this ‘carens’ day system. In some economic sectors, the system has already been abolished. In a range of sectors, the discussion was complemented by the creation of a working group to investigate short-term absenteeism in the sector and to develop positive prevention campaigns in this regard.

Recent national policies on reducing absenteeism have to reflect the general turnabout since the mid 1990s in Belgian occupational health and safety (OHS) policies and management. Occupational health in Belgium is regulated by the ‘Law on the well-being of employees at work’ of 4 August 1996. The Belgian law covers three main areas: occupational safety, occupational medicine and occupational hygiene in the workplace, with a growing focus on risk prevention and a multidisciplinary approach in all three areas. In general, well-being is an important objective in improving the quality of work through measures of safety, risk prevention, ergonomics and hygiene. The prevention policy of the employer should be based on the principles of a continuous risk assessment in the workplace, the medical surveillance of workers, and health education and promotion.

In support of this greater emphasis on risk prevention – including with regard to absenteeism – national agreements have been reached on how to handle and manage stress, mobbing or bullying, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse at the workplace.

(b) What are companies doing to reduce overall absence from work (e.g. attendance incentives or bonuses)? Are sickness prevention plans elaborated? If so, how are elected employee representatives involved in these plans (e.g. through involvement in their design and implementation, or through being informed about them)? Please illustrate with up to three examples.

To fulfil its obligations on health and safety, an employer can use one of the following organisational schemes. The employer can establish an internal service for risk prevention and protection, equipped with the necessary medical and technical professionals in occupational health and safety, known as risk prevention advisors. Alternatively, the employer can affiliate with an external service for risk prevention and protection for the specific tasks that the company wishes to perform in the internal service. The external service for risk prevention and protection is set up as an independent multidisciplinary service, which provides specialised technical and medical services to affiliated employers. The service for risk prevention and protection has to conduct a continuous risk assessment at the workplace, including an inventory of dangers, an assessment of exposure and a risk evaluation.

The risk assessment provides the starting point for preventive measures for risk elimination or reduction, and for a programme of workers’ protection. Together with the other prevention advisors, the occupational health doctor has to provide information and training for employers and employees. The joint committee for risk prevention and protection – or by its absence the trade union delegation – has to be fully involved in the health and safety policy of the company. It has an advisory role, for example in establishing the yearly action plan on risk prevention, but it also has the right to develop and organise its own prevention campaigns.

As part of this prevention approach, interest has grown in moving from an absenteeism policy based on medical control to an integrated approach with a focus on prevention. The external services for risk prevention and protection and other human service companies (often belonging to the same company) offer specific expertise and consulting activities to develop integrated absenteeism management policies – for instance, Medconsult, SD Worx and Securex. For examples, see below.

An online survey carried out by Medconsult of 760 employers in September 2008 showed that 50% of the employers practise a strategy of medical control in case of sickness absence. The results show that this absenteeism management is slowly moving beyond this ‘control’ approach, with 61% of the employers reporting that they have a general management policy to combat absenteeism. The representativeness of this survey cannot be checked, so these findings should be interpreted as being indicative.

(c) Do companies have any specific policies directed at long-term absence? What is done to encourage the reintegration into work of people who are long-term sick? Is work redesigned to meet the needs of employees?

No overall evaluation or monitoring data exist on the spread of reintegration policies. The evidence is case-based and focuses on good practices from an awareness-raising perspective. See in this regard, point 6(c).

6. Well-being at work

(a) Is the concept of well-being at work a feature of debates in your country? Which are the most relevant initiatives in this area, for example in relation to redesigning work to encourage attendance or to promote the health of employees? What are the objectives of such initiatives? How far do they aim to reduce absence levels, and is there any evidence of any reductions? Please provide up to three examples.

As already stated, the whole policy on absenteeism is increasingly developed from a prevention perspective. Absenteeism is in this regard tackled by focusing on the causes. All of the main causes are major points of attention in the prevention work within the company.

As part of its employment policies, the Flemish regional government signs partnership agreements with the sectoral social partner organisations. In 2005, the trade unions and employer organisation of the local public administrations signed a sector covenant (in Dutch, 247Kb PDF) with the Flemish Ministry of Employment and Social Economy. One of the subsidised measures was in collaboration with an external partner to provide instruments to the local management to improve job satisfaction and reduce absenteeism.

From its annual analysis of absenteeism causes, the electricity company Electrabel Distribution South-Flanders (Electrabel Distributie Zuid-Vlaanderen, EDZV) detected a steady increase in sickness absence caused by psychological problems. Stress and depression were the main causes. A 10-point action plan was developed with the support of all the stakeholders.

The paper production company SAPPI integrated a multi-faceted absence management policy in its global quality management. A range of measures were taken, whereby an important task was dedicated to the line management. Possibilities were created for adapting the work. Information and a comparison of absenteeism at all levels were also an important process. In addition, the company developed a range of campaigns to improve the general health of the workers in relation to exercise and diet, and informed employees about safety at home with regard to different activities – as part of absenteeism is caused by accidents at home or in leisure time. The absenteeism rate decreased from 10% to 3%.

(b) To what extent do policies on the management of absence and on well-being engage elected employee representatives? At what stage are representatives involved?

Involvement by the committee of risk prevention and protection at work is greatest during the preparation of the policy. Afterwards, they can provide controls regarding whether the agreed employee rights are protected and respected. A point of discussion is the involvement of the employee representatives when part of the policy is to organise specific absentee talks between the employee and the line and/or human resource (HR) management after three to four recurrent periods of absence.

Through the works council, employee representatives can obtain information on the staff turnover in the company and long-term absenteeism. This social information has to be provided to the works council or trade union delegation, according to the National collective agreement No. 9.

(c) Please summarise the policy position of social partners, and if relevant other representative bodies, on the management of absence, attendance and well-being at work.

Regarding the general position of the social partners on well-being at work, see the national report on working conditions and social dialogue (BE0710019Q). It is fair to say that, overall, the social partners have agreed a consensus on this risk prevention approach. More debate and disagreement exist however regarding the major causes and control procedures, certainly at the workplace level of social dialogue. Trade unions highlight the work-related and organisational causes of absenteeism, while employers emphasise the individual work ethos and discipline. In recent years, trade unions have been strongly rallying and campaigning for a better reconciliation of work and family life.

This situation can be clearly illustrated with the case of the biggest company in Belgium: De Post/La Post. In 2003, the new management reached an agreement with the trade unions to tackle the high rate of absenteeism in the company, which was around 10% and had to be reduced to 7%. A range of prevention – but also stronger control – measures were developed. In 2007, absence rates increased again. The chief executive officer (CEO) sent a personal letter to all employees in the summer of 2007, stating that De Post pays €120 million a year for the salaries of absentee workers. A new strategic plan was developed. It tries to reduce absence through ‘close individual guidance’; employees who are absent more than average are invited for a consultation. In addition, postal offices are compared so that the responsibilities of every local management can be highlighted. Trade unions have reacted rather sceptically, however, stating: ‘It cannot be witch-hunting and some privacy rules have to be respected. The profession of postman cannot be underestimated; they have to be outside under all weather conditions.’ The trade union side, in other words, emphasises the working conditions effects as a cause of the increased absenteeism and contests the management opinion on this matter, which highlights the individual responsibility and organisational culture.

In De Post’s current collective agreement for 2009–2010, a collective pay bonus system is connected to the fight against absenteeism. Depending on how the absenteeism rate is reduced, a bigger budget would become available for the non-recurrent bonus to be paid in 2010. An absenteeism rate of above 8% would lead to no bonus. The budget increases to €2.33 million when the rate goes below 7%.

With regard to sanctioning at the workplace, differences in opinion seem to be greatest. A dismissal because of repeated unjustified absence is sometimes the cause of an industrial conflict. A recent example was a strike at the local regional transport company Public Transport (Transport en Commun, TEC) in September 2009, when a dismissal due to unjustified absence was questioned by colleagues and the trade union.

Related to the absenteeism question – but also related to the pending debate on the possible harmonisation of the blue-collar and white-collar employment statute in the country (BE1002019I) – is the discussion between the social partners at national and sectoral level on the abolishment of the ‘carens’ day. This arrangement is increasingly being abolished in a range of blue-collar joint committees.

Trade unions have career and diversity management consultants, which are involved in projects to facilitate the re-integration of people with a disability at work. A brochure (in Dutch, 2.31Mb PDF) summarises this ‘Introduction disability management at work’ approach with the involvement of the trade unions.


Please provide an assessment of national debates about absence. What is the balance between controlling high levels of absence, on the one hand, and promoting health and a positive work environment, on the other?

Absenteeism is considered to be high in Belgium, although exact and comparable figures are lacking in this regard. Recent trends do not show a further deterioration, although the economic crisis could lead to greater attention to the problem due to the costs involved. Traditionally, the approach to tackle the problem was very control based. As part of a general turnabout in OHS policies, however, attention to risk prevention of especially the work-related causes has increased considerably. A series of specialised companies are now active in this field to help and provide consultancy services to companies in this regard. The psychosocial factor is increasingly highlighted.

Social partners seem to have found a kind of consensus to promote the prevention approach, although they have differing opinions about the main responsibilities – organisational or individual – and the procedural rights and duties of workers in the case of absence.


Godin, I. and Kittel, F., ‘Differential economic stability and psychosocial stress at work: Associations with psychosomatic complaints and absenteeism’, Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 58, No. 8, 2004, pp. 1543–1553.

Verhaeghe, R., Vlerick, P., Gemmel, P., Van Maele, G. and De Backer, G., ‘Impact of recurrent changes in the work environment on nurses’ psychological well-being and sickness absence’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, Vol. 56, No. 6, 2006, pp. 646–656.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute of Labour Studies, KU Leuven

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