Work disability: The Dutch disease

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

In France, unhappy workers go on strike. In Holland, they call in sick. Roberta Cowan explores some of the thorny issues involved in the costly Dutch WAO disability scheme.

Abuse of the Dutch incapacity benefits system — WAO or Arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzerkering — is a widespread problem that has been fully acknowledged by organizations representing employees, employers and government bodies.

 Critics believe that increasingly it has become culturally and professionally accepted in Holland to go off sick when there is a conflict at work.

Top civil servants and CEOs have been known to choose this "option" when conflicts arise. But, experts say, many of those claimants could have gone back to work far earlier if the proper treatment and support had been available, while others should never have been declared sick in the first place.

17 percent of the Dutch workforce is sick

Currently a million people are in the WAO system with a third of the claimants off with "psychological" problems. Depression, anxiety, stress — the generic Dutch term "overspannen" covers the lot.

In a country of only 16 million people, 17 percent of the workforce draws upwards of 70 percent of their last salary while officially they are "too sick" to work full time.

Depression is number one on the list of illnesses with stress coming in a close second. Women and minority cases are disproportionately high.

Though lauded as a country with a highly motivated and productive workforce, the Netherlands has more people on long-term incapacity leave than in most other Western countries.

The number of WAO claimants grew 18.5 percent last year with increases in the education, government and police sectors, while healthcare held on to top spot for the largest overall number of WAO claimants.

Under the current scheme, an employee is paid by their employer the first year they are sick. After the first year the employee has a state medical assessment and should they be deemed disabled (irreversibly or partially) they qualify for WAO benefits, which can be up to 70 percent of the employees last salary.

Thorny issues become political

The controversial WAO scheme has been debated for years. On 11 November Dutch union FNV rejected the government’s re-jigged benefit plan, citing the outgoing coalition’s WAO plan as “anti-social”.

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