Speaking to her son one morning, a mother didn’t believe him when he said he wasn’t well enough to go school and asked him to give her two reasons why he shouldn’t have to go, to which he replied “Well the kids hate me for one and so do the teachers”. Not convinced, the mother told her son that was no reason to have a sick day and that he should get up and ready to go. Feeling bold, the son then asked his mother – ‘give me two reasons why I should go to school’ and the mother replied, ‘well for one, you are 50 years old and for another, you are the Headteacher’…
It’s an oldie and not necessarily a goodie, but joking aside this sort of conversation goes on every day in thousands of houses up and down the Country. Every year, the general and specialist media report on the impact of sickness absence to UK businesses, with figures such as 131 million working days lost in a year as a result of sickness absence, alongside estimates that this costs businesses almost £29 billion. These figures equate to an average of 6.6 days sickness absence per employee per year – which for some of you, may not seem that high; but can you ever be certain that every one of those days can be attributed to a genuine bout of sickness??
Last week, Channel 5 had been scheduled to show a documentary exposing ‘Sick Note Skivers’; the preamble promised stories about a nurse who claimed to be unable to work due to a bad back, whilst taking on literally hundreds of bank shifts in other hospitals and a woman who told her employers that her father had died, taking one week of compassionate leave followed by 5 weeks of sickness absence due to stress, only to be exposed when her employer visited her at home and was greeted by her father, who was very much alive. It also featured the story of Matthew Thomas, an athlete who had competed nationally, but who was branded a common criminal back in 2010 when it emerged that he had claimed thousands of pounds in sick pay from his employer; claiming to have a bad back, whilst pursuing his own athletics goals and training youngsters as well as competing himself.
Sadly (for me anyway), the documentary was replaced at the last minute and I didn’t get to watch it, but it did get me thinking…
Are you sceptical when it comes to sickness absence?
I will at this stage hold my hand up to being a little sceptical when it comes to sickness absence; I want to believe that people are genuinely sick and, on the whole my scepticism is proved unfounded. But, with programmes like this and having spent 21 years working in Human Resources, I have personally come across numerous cases where I was absolutely right to be doubtful about a person’s absence – in the last few months alone, I have identified ‘fake’ fit notes (bought on the internet, two for £10) and dealt with an individual caught doing private work whilst claiming to be too unwell to come into work… I’ve also had friends and family tell me about their planned ‘sickness’, so that they can have a day off work and others confusing their entitlement to receive ‘sick pay’ with an ‘entitlement to take time off work sick’.
Not all ‘faux’ sickness is taken malevolently though; research indicates that there are numerous ‘hidden carers’ who feel the need to take a day off sick in order to care for an elderly relative or child, rather than to make a request for a day of paid or unpaid carer’s leave.
Employers can take a proactive approach to reducing and/or removing this problem where it exists through having appropriate policies in place to offer employees alternatives. For example; agreeing formalised flexible working arrangements with employees who have caring responsibilities can help employers to manage time more effectively and make plans to deal with peaks and troughs in service delivery, rather than having to take reactive action because an employee has not turned in for work.
Another alternative which seems to be winging its way from across ‘the Pond’ is the concept of ‘duvet days’. Go on, admit it; we’ve all rolled our eyes and ‘tutted’ despairingly when we’ve heard the phrase, but this may not be as daft as it initially seems. ‘Duvet days’ are not additional to an employee’s annual leave entitlement, but are contained within it; it just gives employees a chance to take up to four days (one at a time) of their leave entitlement without having to meet the usual rules around booking in advance. Recognising that the concept will not suit all organisations and occupations; where it is practical to introduce it into the workplace, it can be pitched as a ‘perk’, one which will be withdrawn if abused and it is suggested that where such benefits are in place, employees will be less inclined to ‘throw a sickie’ after a heavy night on the ale.
On the flip side, employers can take reactive measures where they believe that employees are ‘swinging the lead’. Whilst not yet a common practice, it is not unheard of for employers to engage the services of private investigators to ‘catch’ employees skiving from work. Caution should be exercised by employers when doing this though to avoid any claims that they have breached an individual’s human rights; having employees who call in sick routinely followed to try and catch them out is likely to fall foul of human rights legislation. However, an employer acting on information received or a reasonable suspicion and where it can be shown that their actions are proportionate in the circumstances, with no alternative means to get at the truth, is less likely to fall foul of this legislation.
Of course though, still one of the easiest ways to catch employees ‘swinging the lead’ is the phenomenon that is Social Media; despite warnings and media coverage, some employees still fail to recognise the power that these platforms wield. It should not really come as a surprise that updating your status with tales of bargains bought at the shopping centre or posting photographs of you swigging beer out of a bottle and dancing on a bar, on days when you have called in sick, will inevitably one way or another, find their way back to your employer, who are then within their rights to take appropriate action…
… But oddly, it still does!!