Workplace absence may have cost the UK economy 12.2bn in 2004, according to annual figures from the CBI, but the suggestion that 1.7bn of this comes from staff pulling 'sickies' put employers and workers at loggerheads last month.
While the survey by the CBI and insurance firm Axa stresses that most absence is caused by genuine illness - and welcomes the fact that absence levels have returned to about the same level as 2002 after a surge in 2003 - it also argues that absenteeism remains 'an issue' for many employers.
Among the 500 or so companies polled, employers believe 23 million working days are not genuine. Absenteeism is a bigger problem in larger organisations, and is one area where there is little difference between private and public sectors.
Four out of five organisations monitor the different illnesses that cause their staff to be absent, but employers report a prevalence of unauthorised extensions to weekends, 'duvet days', and peaks during sporting events.
A total of 74% of the employers questioned say there is "definitely or possibly" a link between absence and Mondays or Fridays, with 65% saying there is a link to holidays and 40% to special events.
While genuine illness is the most significant cause of absence for manual and non-manual workers, particularly for manual workers, paid sickness absence is commonly seen as an "entitlement". As such, it is thought to be the second most significant cause of absence.
For non-manual workers, home and family responsibilities are seen as the second most significant cause.
CBI director of HR policy, Susan Anderson, says: "We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend it is not happening. We need to create a culture that is sympathetic when people are ill but where we are not afraid to say if there is a problem."
Line managers, she adds, are generally "utterly abysmal" at managing absence and, for a policy to be really effective, it needs to be clearly led by senior management or, if not them, then by HR.
"Most staff only take time off when they were genuinely ill, but we all know abuse does go on," Anderson says.
"Employers and employees share a common interest in creating a culture where those that are genuinely ill are able to take time off and recover, but where abuse is not tolerated," she explains.
But Anderson's view provokes an impassioned response from TUC deputy general secretary