Are You Paid Well Enough to Afford Sick Leave?

Bulgarians and Romanians are the two nations that are the least likely in the EU to be absent from work due to sickness, data from Eurostat reveals. Exemplary work ethic? Sadly, the explanation lies elsewhere.

Shot of a young businessman blowing his nose with a tissue at work
Photo: iStock.com / Cecilie_Arcurs

At the end of 2022, Romania and Bulgaria registered the lowest absenteeism rates in the EU, 2.5% and 2.9%, respectively. With Bulgaria and Romania spending only 0.6% and 0.3% of their GDP on sick leave benefits (in 2020), employees in these countries have a difficult choice to make. What is it going to be? Staying at home but being paid less, or showing up at work while feeling under the weather to keep your monthly salary intact?

A question of math

“Bulgaria is struggling with a diminishing labor force, and those who do work have little interest in getting sick leave,” Dr. Milen Cholakov, deputy chairman of the Association of General Practitioners in the Shumen region in northeastern Bulgaria, observes in conversation with 3Seas Europe. “Sick leave itself doesn’t look particularly attractive. In Bulgaria, the first day is paid at one hundred percent, and then the following days are paid in a decreasing function. Our patients must do the math. Wages in Bulgaria are low, to begin with, and then they hit you with sick pay. The incentive to stay at home and get better is simply not there,” Dr. Cholakov adds.

Across the EU, Germany spends the most on sick leave and health care benefits, 2021 data from Eurostat shows. While Germany dedicates as much as 11% of its GDP, countries in the Three Seas region lag behind. Among the countries spending the least in this category are Estonia (4.9%), Lithuania (5%), Poland (5.5%), and Hungary (5.5%). Bulgaria, according to the same source, spends 5.3% of its GDP on sick leave and health care benefits.

When it comes to sick leave benefits in particular, 2020 figures also show Germany to be the EU’s leader, having spent 2.3% of its GDP supporting sick employees. In the Three Seas region, among the countries spending the least on such benefits, in addition to Bulgaria and Romania, are Estonia (0.4%) and Hungary (0.5%).

But the Q4 2022 Eurostat numbers on sick leave in the EU for people aged 20-64 reveal something unexpected: The generosity of the social system, or its lack thereof, is not always directly linked to work absenteeism due to health issues. Among the countries with the highest share of employees absent from work were France (14.9%) and Finland (14.8%), but also Estonia, not a big spender on sick leave benefits, with 13.2%.

Varying compensation

Next to Romania and Bulgaria, in the ranking of lowest absenteeism rates, one can find another Three Seas country, Poland (5.8%). Furthermore, with sick leave compensation tied to one’s salary, employee compensation in Bulgaria varies from city to city. While in Sofia, the average daily compensation is around EUR 26, in Blagoevgrad, in southwestern Bulgaria, that same compensation amounts to EUR 17, on average.

Bulgarians are strong. We’re Balkan people

Aziz Sadulla, entrepreneur

Aziz Sadulla, the owner of a confectionery company in the town of Veliki Preslav in northeast Bulgaria, offers a different explanation for Bulgarians refusing to take sick leave. “Bulgarians are strong. We’re Balkan people,” Sadulla tells 3Seas Europe. “In our company, it has happened that employees come to work sick. They simply refused to take sick leave. Our production process is continuous, and any absence would have a negative impact. Of course, I am not condoning it, but it is a personal decision of our workers. But I also know of workers in Bulgaria who would ask their family doctor for a sick note so they could go on a holiday. This is simply wrong.”

Also, a Bulgarian feature is constantly discussing one’s health. With better sick leave benefits not in sight yet, here’s to hoping one has nothing but good news to share.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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