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Binging behaviours can prove costly for employers and employees

19 June 2019

There is an undoubtable increase in "binging" behaviour resulting in significant losses to employers and their businesses.

A recent Radio Times survey in the United Kingdom looked at the binge viewing habits of 5500 people.

This is a recent phenomenon with the advent of Netflix and other streaming services which allow viewers to watch entire series of TV shows in one go.

Many New Zealand television companies have also launched "catch up" services enabling further binge viewing.

Not like the days when I was a youngster going to watch a new episode of Tarzan each week.

The UK survey found that three-quarters of participants binged more than four hours consecutively and half binged more than eights hours of a show in one sitting.

Alarmingly 80 per cent of viewers said they had cut their sleep short to continue binge watching.

The survey also looked at the impact on employment, finding 18 per cent of working participants called in sick from work to continue watching TV shows.

Many readers will agree that this is selfish and indulgent living.

Employers will find it a source of great frustration to discover that this is the cause of some absences.

Why should people be able to stay up watching Netflix into the night and then force inconvenience on their employer and fellow workers.

Obviously, it is an expensive indulgence, particularly where the employer pays sick leave, but even finding replacement workers is far from easy. And then there is the recent University of Otago study published almost concurrently with the UK survey.

This dealt with the impact of alcohol on productivity in New Zealand.

It found that employees' drinking habits cost New Zealand employers $1.65 billion in lost productivity.

Included in the calculation was days off work, lost productive time at work, and time employers' spend dealing with alcohol related issues.

While only 6 per cent of the workers admitted taking time off due to their drinking, there were 10 per cent who admitted losing productive time at work because of their drinking.

Put another way, the cost to employers of drinking was over $1000 for every worker, or almost five days absence per worker.

The number of workers who turn up with hangovers and the like is such that a new term has been coined; presenteeism.

In the old days, the common issue was a worker not turning up on Monday due to a hangover from the weekend.

It is much harder for employers to pick up workers who turn up at work but are not on top of their game because of a hangover.

Legally, the employer has limited recourse against hangover-induced absences.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the Holidays Act doesn't define what constitutes being sick.

The Court of Appeal provided guidance in a case brought by a labour inspector against Kelcold Limited.

The court said the act defined sickness as unfitness for work for health reasons of any nature, however caused.

Therefore, if an employee has sick leave entitlements, self-inflicted unfitness for work by reason of a hangover would be a valid reason to take sick leave.

Even if the employment agreement allows for the employer to request proof, a GP could provide a medical certificate saying the person is unwell, even if the condition is self-induced.

However, if a worker developed a habit of absenteeism as a result of their alcohol consumption, they may be liable for a warning or placed on a performance improvement plan to deal with their absences.

Comparatively, however, staying at home to watch the latest Netflix series can have more serious consequences with respect to sick leave.

The Employment Court in a case involving Sunbeam Corporation noted that the use of sick leave is a matter requiring significant trust of the worker by the employer and abuse of the right to paid sick leave will be serious because it involves obtaining payment by false pretences, or at least attempting to do so.

So workers claiming sick leave to continue their binge watching habits should be wary, or they may find themselves out of work.

There is one further very important issue.

Workers turning up at work in an impaired state whether through alcohol or through sleeplessness can be a danger to themselves and others.

Where they are in safety sensitive jobs this can lead to serious consequences.

Employers have legal obligations to provide a safe workplace and manage safety risks.

Failure to address safety risks is showing a lack of regard for one's staff and following tough, legislative changes in this area mean failure by the employer may be expensive.

Some employers mitigate this risk by implementing alcohol testing regimes where the law allows them to do so to avoid these potential costs.

Most workers are of course honest and hardworking, however it is clear that there can be serious costs for both employer and employee as a result of binge watching and binge drinking.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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