Absence of sensible debate seems to be a national illness

Another day, yet another survey damning hardworking Britons, branding them with the Scarlet Letter of sloth and deception. For two reasons, the CBI’s latest research claiming UK bosses attribute one in eight of all absences to staff feigning sickness, and how this costs the economy £1.6bn a year, is not news.

First, these kinds of claims are reeled out every other year as a football championship or Olympic event threatens to bring the country grinding to a halt and second, it’s spurious, given the unpaid extra hours we as a hard-working nation put in every year.

It would be naïve to suggest that workers don’t ‘pull a sickie’ every once in a while. But is claiming the odd day off work a year to questionably convalesce really costing the economy billions a year?

We work in a culture where flexibility and discretionary effort are expected unconditionally of workers, but not of their employers. When was the last time you took a full hour for lunch? No, I can’t remember either. If the job requires you to only grab 20 minutes for a sandwich for you to clear your workload, you do it. This is flexible working in action – through a lack of lunch-breaks, it is estimated the average person works 30 days extra a year. Therefore, is the economy still losing £1.6bn because of the reported ‘pulling a sickie’?

There is far more to our lives than work, with many other activities that need to be squeezed into our hectic schedules. Anyone who has tried to book a doctor’s appointment, go to hospital or arrange for the gas man to come round outside normal working hours will be aware what a difficult task this is. Sometimes, these engagements simply have to be done during working hours, thus making trust the root of the ‘problem’.

Ultimately, people want to do a good job, but from time to time, it is necessary to take a day off. If you are lucky enough to work in an office where you enjoy an open relationship between members of staff, this is not a problem. They will tell you they need the day off and, reasonably, you will allow them that.

Surveys often state that absenteeism is not a problem in small to medium-sized organisations (SMEs), but it is a problem in big corporations, and especially the public sector. Big corporates do have problems with staff going missing and taking their ‘allocation’ of sick days. Managers are less easily identified, and the size of the organisations mean that it is easy for workers to throw a sickie.

Such disappearing acts are virtually unheard of in the SME sector because it is far easier to track workers and their productivity.

If one of your 10-strong team fails to turn up, your productivity is hit noticeably. If one of your 150-strong team goes missing for a day, it just won’t have the same impact.

Rather than the CBI saying the UK as a whole is struggling to contend with absenteeism, it should be highlighting the difficulties large employers face in dealing with this problem.

These employers are missing out on the economies of scale that should be their unique selling point, because they are unable to train line managers effectively and maintain open lines of communication with their staff.

Absence is as much to do with non-work issues and the desire to come to work as it is to do with illness. Identifying the root cause is the key to unlocking the discretionary effort that is most valuable to business.

Ultimately, my prescription is simple: listen to your staff and be prepared to afford them the flexibility they no doubt show you. If a member of staff is lying about being ill, it’s not an issue of commitment, but an issue of two-way trust. Ultimately, it is what your staff achieve while at work that is important, not how long they spend doing it.

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