She is so not coming in today. Photo: Shutterstock

Wednesday 9th March 2016

Sick beats

How can you stop your lazy employees from bunking off?

People love sickies. According to one commentator, bunking off from work is now so widespread that it costs the UK economy £34m every year. There’s even something called National Sickie Day, when an estimated 375,000 people call up the boss claiming their head is throbbing and their dog has a terrible cold.

And barely a week goes by without sickies making the news. What about that Spanish geezer who went on a sickie for six years? And the new website in Australia (Dr Sicknote) that issues medical certificates without the employee even having to get out of his or her bed and down to the local GP?

It’s sick man, and not in the sense that the saggy-panted kids on the street use the word.

Plus of course, there’s always those lists about the worst absence excuses, which include, according to a CareerBuilder survey:

  • I was sprayed by a skunk.
  • My bus broke down and was held up by robbers.
  • I forgot to come back to work after lunch.
  • I couldn’t find my shoes.
  • A hitman was looking for me.
  • My monkey died.

And when it’s the World Cup or similar, sickie excuses pepper into organisations with all the frequency of Cristiano Ronaldo peppering the back of the Welsh net. But what, as HR or as line managers, can we do to stop the sickie rot?

Duvet know it’s Christmas?

Scout around the web and you’ll find some great ideas.

A nice duvet yesterday.

The Americans are big on Duvet Days, which effectively means taking a day from your sickness allowance with no notice. (Critics suggest it’s a sure-fire way to annoy colleagues who have to carry your workload with no time to backfill.)

Other gurus suggest paying attendance bonuses, which strikes us as being a bit like giving dogs a bonus for barking or giving Russell Brand a bonus for sleeping with women. Heck – isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

Management Today suggests smothering slackers with paperwork on their return is the best idea, whereas yet another expert recommends a more liberal approach to home-working (where relevant, of course).

Consistency is best

‘Organisations who don’t take a consistent approach to absence management tend to struggle,’ says Adrian Lewis, Director of Activ Absence. ‘Leaving it to line managers is understandable when HR doesn’t have the largest resource. But absence management can then get put to one side by busy line managers, and some will deal with it in very different ways to others.’

Adrian Lewis

The lack of absence management can be demotivating for employees, who might suspect their absence has gone unnoticed, and that their contribution is negligible. It might also annoy the people left in the workplace who need to deal with an extra workload.

Lewis suggests that sickies can be discouraged in a number of ways. ‘Return to work interviews, questionnaires or other forms of self-certification can be useful tools,’ he says.

The important thing is to record the absence and use it as an opportunity to talk to the employee. This dialogue can help reduce avoidable absences and might even increase engagement – the employee sees that their attendance is a valuable thing, and that the employer cares about their wellbeing.

Incidentally, as a big Rugby fan, Lewis sees the Six Nations as another potential sickie magnet. In England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland a big drinking culture accompanies international games,’ he says. ‘A Sunday match usually means an increase in ‘Sickie Mondays’. Meanwhile, Saturday games are prone to ‘Ferry Fridays’ as fans sneak off early with a ‘mystery virus’ to travel to the game.’

Wastes of time

Donald MacKinnon, Director of Legal Services at Law at Work, suggests there’s a difference between people who throw the odd sickie and those who repeatedly abuse the system. ‘In the latter case, the employer has no option but to address it,’ he says. ‘Otherwise, it isn’t fair on the company or colleagues.’

The management of sickies is all about the art of the possible, MacKinnon suggests. ‘For the odd sickie, frustrating as it may be, the employer pretty much has to grit their teeth and get on with it. Getting into a dispute with an employee (or even the employee’s GP) over whether the employee is really ill or not is normally a waste of time and effort.

Donald MacKinnon

‘There’s been some great cases where the employee has been caught out. One employee who was off long-term sick with back problems was photographed winning a local trampoline championship. And of course, you do catch out the odd employee via Facebook who’s a bit too open about the real reason for being off sick.

‘These are rare cases, though,’ he adds.

MacKinnon also counsels against dissuading genuinely ill people from taking time off. ‘Of course, the employer also needs to consider whether or not they really want employees with a head cold dragging themselves in and spreading their germs around the office.

‘There are plenty of employees who take pleasure in never ever having a day off, and who turn up manifestly unfit to work to the consternation of their soon-to-be–suffering colleagues.’

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.