Time to clamp down on sick Britain syndrome

Survey results released recently showed that UK staff took 21 million ‘suspect sickies’ last year, at a cost of £1.6bn to the economy.

The study, conducted by the CBI and insurer AXA, found that seven out of 10 employers believed staff liked to extend their weekend by taking Mondays or Fridays off sick, while 39% said possible fake illness claims were linked to special events, including major sporting tournaments.

A culture exists in many work sectors whereby sick pay days are considered just another perk of the job that should be taken off, so they are not ‘wasted’. We have even come across instances of public sector employees planning sickies in advance and covering for each other on the days in question.

Clearly, HR has to do more to clarify the difference between holiday entitlement and the provision in a contract that allows an employee to a certain amount of fully paid sick leave.

HR must send a clear message that paid sick leave is there as a safety net only to be used in an emergency, and not an annual benefit to be utilised, in full, every year.

There are several steps you should be taking to get the message across:

  • Ensure that employees’ initial contracts clearly cover the company’s expectations regarding sick leave. Entitlement to sick pay over and above the statutory sick pay level should be described as discretionary, with odd days of sickness absence under the statutory scheme not being paid. There are too many instances where HR has failed to highlight in an employment contract or sickness absence policy that conditions need to be met to qualify for an entitlement to paid sick leave.
  • Keep detailed records of persistent short-term absences. These should help line managers identify problems at an early stage, and allow warnings to be issued that will give a basis for firmer action later on if necessary. This way, you can monitor behavioural trends and build up a profile of a potential problem employee.
  • Implement a strong absence management policy along with a standard expected level of attendance. All managers must be ready to ensure staff attendance meets this level – if necessary by taking disciplinary action. If managers are not enforcing it, then give them specific training.
  • Ensure your sickness absence policy does not just allow every absence to be self-certified. Powers need to be included whereby rights to sick pay are lost if employees fail to produce specific evidence of illness. Ideally, there will be an option to direct workers to a doctor retained by the organisation.
  • There should be a back-to-work interview in every case – even after only a day or two. The formality of an interview will help to drive home the seriousness with which the company views short-term absence.
  • Both HR departments and line managers need to be more proactive. There are a number of deterrents you should consider implementing, including loss of attendance bonuses because of short-term absence, down- marking in salary appraisals, or even naming and shaming individuals by displaying workforce or departmental attendance records in communal areas.

Remember that the focus of any such action is to put an end to the tendency to take odd days of sickness as extra holidays – rather than chastising employees where there is evidence of genuine sickness. Care does need to be taken, as there are employment rights, such as the Disability Discrimination Act, under which an employee could attempt to claim compensation. But HR can – and should – change the workplace culture to curtail these ‘suspect sickies’.

Measures to consider to combat a sick business culture

  • Provide that sick pay entitlement is discretionary.
  • Keep detailed records regarding persistent short-term absences.
  • Train managers to enforce absence management standards.
  • Make provision for requiring evidence of sickness.
  • Hold back-to-work interviews.
  • Consider attendance bonuses, appraisals or ‘naming and shaming’ individuals.

Is the sickie culture a problem? E‑mail dawn.spalding@rbi.co.uk

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