Its national sickie day - are you pulling a sickie?

Written by
Dr Jill Miller

06 Feb 2017

06 Feb 2017 • by Dr Jill Miller

Why is it happening?

What we’ll see this week are many articles on the top 10 most bizarre reasons employees have given for not coming into work. We’ve just got through January, are still paying the bills from Christmas and although it’s getting lighter outside, we’re still getting up and coming home in the dark. 

But on a more serious note, the day poses a question to employers about what an increase in sick days means. To what extent does it reflect an unhelpful cultural norm in the organisation or an inadequate sickness policy? Is it genuine sickness, or is there an underlying problem? 

The answer to what constitutes absence being classified as ‘illegitimate’ is no doubt more complex than what we first think. Perhaps the organisation isn’t flexible enough to allow them to work around their caring responsibilities at home? Perhaps they are suffering with an illness that they don’t feel they can talk openly about? Or, perhaps they’re finding it difficult to work with their colleagues and aren’t sure what to do about it? There are many more explanations as to why unexplained absence occurs, but organisations can take steps to understand these, ensure employees feel supported and start to reduce illegitimate absence figures.

Four of the main learnings that came out of the latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey and wider debate with employers are particularly useful to think about here.  

Strike the right balance between absence and presenteeism

What we don’t want to see is people coming into work unwell for fear of people thinking they’re pulling a sickie if they take a day off. It’s important to strike the appropriate balance between taking action against those taking advantage of an organisation’s sick pay schemes and ensuring the appropriate support is in place for those who are genuinely ill. It’s important that those dealing with these often sensitive situations have the confidence and competence to be able to make good decisions and support their employees effectively.

Upskill line managers

More organisations are recognising the critical role of line managers in managing both long and short term absence. However, this recognition for the line manager role doesn’t appear to be matched by employer support for them to manage absence most effectively. Line managers need to feel confident and capable of having what can often be difficult conversations with members of their team, so training needs to be built into their job roles, and ongoing support and guidance needs to be available when they need it. The availability of tailored support is important as it may be considerable time between having training and encountering a specific issue. 

Create a workplace people want

I’m hearing of many organisations linking absence management with engagement – creating an environment where people don’t think about calling in sick unless they are genuinely ill. We know from the research that interesting and fulfilling work, opportunities for developing our skills and feeling included and valued are all important. Likewise, some employers are changing their focus from absence management to attendance management, working to make attendance the norm. Happy and supported employees are less likely to be absent, and ultimately they will be more productive, committed and engaged with the organisation.

How comfortable do employees feel to report the reason for their absence?

Despite having a genuine reason for absence, people may not feel comfortable telling their employer about it. For example, as a nation we’re getting better talking about mental health but there’s still a long way to go and it relies on having an open organisation culture and a belief that you will be supported, whatever your situation. The number of organisations seeing an increase in reported mental health problems among employees has remained at a worrying level over the last few years. But this is just the number of reported problems – it’s likely that some unexplained absence may be due to mental health issues that people may not feel comfortable telling their employer about. 


Are sick days being taken to mask other commitments?

Our research has found that employers that offer flexible working and those that offer leave for home/family circumstances are somewhat less likely to have reported illegitimate absence among their top five causes of short-term absence. Could high non-genuine absence figures be due to the lack of organisation provision for employees with caring responsibilities or those facing difficult circumstances?