Are THAT many people really skiving off?

Non-genuine absence is under the spotlight again this year as organisations are under increasing pressure to cut costs and increase productivity. After seeing this year’s Absence Management survey results I’ve got a strong suspicion that what’s classified as ‘illegitimate absence’  or ‘pulling a sickie’ isn’t always what we traditionally think of as hangover days, daytime TV days and general skiving.

This year’s survey, produced annually in partnership with Simplyhealth, found that for 30% per cent of organisations non-genuine absence is one of their top causes of short-term absence for manual workers and 23% for non-manual workers. These figures suggest that illegitimate time off work is a serious issue. But when we dig a bit deeper into the data, a somewhat different story emerges.

Employers that offer flexible working are significantly less likely to have reported illegitimate absence among their top five causes of short-term absence (24% compared with 35% of those who don’t use flexible working to manage short-term absence).  The public sector continues to remain less likely than the private to include illegitimate absence among their top causes of absence, and this may be at least partly attributable to more widespread flexible working practices.

However, what’s more worrying from this year’s survey findings are the figures around how much long-term absence is put down to people ‘pulling a sickie’. I’ve always thought of it as a short-term issue – people taking a Friday off after a Thursday night out, calling in sick when you’d rather be sunning yourself in the garden, or when your boss won’t give you the day off to go to a friend’s wedding etc.

But this year we’ve seen significantly more organisations including illegitimate absence among their top causes of long-term absence for non-manual workers (14%, compared to 3% in 2014 and 2% in 2013). Again, this trend isn’t seen in the public sector.    

Organisations in the public sector are also much less likely than other sectors to include time off due to home/family/carer responsibilities in their top causes of absence. Is there something in this finding that can help explain the increase in non-genuine long-term absence?

One reason for the rise could be down to employer decisions on what constitutes illegitimate absence in the first place. For example, an employee could be technically ill, but their employer doesn’t think it warrants time off. It could also be due to the lack of organisational provision for employees under difficult circumstances – perhaps employees with caring responsibilities whose employers don’t provide for it.

We’re keen to get a better understanding of what these figures mean in reality. In my experience, there will always be a small minority of people who’ll take advantage of their employer’s sick pay scheme, but for the vast majority of people there is another explanation. It’s therefore key that organisations record absence management data and observe trends and anomalies, to begin to understand what might help reduce absence levels. And of course ask employees themselves, perhaps in the staff survey or in focus groups, about what they would find most valuable in terms of support.

And are we thinking seriously about making reasonable adjustments to help people back into work, and to stay in work, such as through flexible working or by redesigning their role or making changes to the work environment. It’s only by getting to the root causes of absence that we can respond better to support people and help them stay in work.

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  • We need to work much harder to support people in difficult situations that might be helped with relatively easy changes and minimal business impact. It's far easier to investigate and analyse absence and data lazily but helping people and showing empathy leads to a more motivated engaged workforce.