It’s national sickie day

If you’re thinking of calling in sick today, some statistics suggest you may not be alone. In 2011, 1 February was earmarked as national sickie day by business support company ELAS who saw an upsurge in people calling in sick on that day. Since then, the first Monday in February has carried this title.

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, facing 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 for employers about what an increase in sick days at any time of year means. To what extent does it reflect an unhelpful cultural norm in the organisation or an inadequate sickness policy, to what extent is it inevitable genuine sickness, or is there an underlying problem?

The answer of what constitutes absence being classified as ‘illegitimate’ is no doubt more complex than at first sight. 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? And there are many more explanations why unexplained absence occurs, but organisations can take steps to understand these reasons, ensure that employees feel supported and start to reduce illegitimate absence figures.

Five 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 to come to
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?

In a previous blog I urged caution in taking absence classified as ‘illegitimate’ or ‘non-genuine’ at face value as it may not always be what we traditionally think of as hangover days, daytime TV days and general skiving. We need to consider whether data in this category is masking other issues employees are facing. In my experience there will always be a small minority of people who’ll take advantage of an employers’ sick pay scheme, but for the vast majority of people it’s likely there’ll be another explanation.

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