Throwing a sickie

How to tackle workers faking illness has been a dilemma for employers for as
long as people have had to work for a living. Not only can it be a sensitive
issue, it is also a costly one given the expense of paying missing staff, the
disruption caused by their absence and the loss of production as colleagues try
to cover their work.

Recent studies have also shown how morale within the workplace plummets
around persistent absenteeism, with as many as 92% of women saying they get
annoyed when colleagues ring in sick.

Fortunately for most employers, it is an epidemic on the turn, with
government figures showing a slight drop in the number of days lost to sickness
every year. Even so, no fewer than 176 million days are still lost to sickness
annually, costing the UK economy more than £11.5bn a year.

At least 14% of those – 23 million days or £1.7bn worth – are a result of
lazy workers faking illness. But what can managers realistically do to tackle
the issue without punishing the employees who, from time to time, are genuinely

Surprisingly, the first hurdle is often confidence. A recent survey by
Employment Law Advisory Services found that one in four small business owners
were so scared about being sued that they refused to tackle their own lazy

The amount of unnecessary red tape causes them to think the law is weighted
on the side of the lazy worker. So rather than tackle a serious issue, too many
sit back and suffer unnecessarily. While absence can be a sensitive issue, the
solution is often quite simple.

Software is available to help managers spot absenteeism – including the
fabled ‘Monday-itis’, which only strikes immediately after a heavy weekend – and
guides them through dealing with the issue. But even for those without fancy
computer wizardry working silently on their behalf, dealing with absenteeism
needn’t be as difficult as it seems.

Tackle the cause

The first and most important thing for managers to remember is that, as with
many things, prevention is better than cure.

Identifying any underlying issues, which might be causing workers to take
time off sick, will help managers cut down on the number of days lost to

A good proactive manager, therefore, will be keen to hold a back-to-work
interview for anyone who has been off sick, even if for only one day. By doing
so, and by monitoring staff sickness records closely, issues and patterns may
emerge, which can help them understand what the underlying cause of absence
really is.

If the cause is simply heavy partying after every pay day weekend, then
disciplinary action may be required.

But if it is a genuine workplace concern, for instance a personality clash,
which only affects one monthly meeting, for example, then this can be addressed
early on and the problematic absence can be solved.

When all else fails, however, there are legal procedures, which can help
bosses safely tackle absent staff – as long as they are followed carefully.
Before employers can even attempt to do this, they must ensure that they keep
proper records showing not only absence, but also lateness and recording reasons
given with each.

Clear warning

When a problem emerges, and the employee’s explanations are not satisfactory,
managers should set out the improvements required and give the worker a
timescale in which to achieve them. If an improvement is noted, then tell the
individual, but if it is not, managers should start by giving a verbal warning
and restating the improvements needed.

The next step would be a first written warning, followed by a final written
warning and then, ultimately, dismissal. The most important rule of all is that
employers are prompt, firm and fair.

As with any employment law, inconsistency is the most dangerous threat to
managers, and could potentially lead to all manner of costly discrimination
claims at tribunal. But providing employers follow the rules, controlling
absence can be a relatively straightforward task. More importantly, it is a
policy that will be repaid not only in improved attendance, but also with a
happier and healthier workforce.

Peter Mooney is head of consultancy at Employment Law Advisory


According to government figures, about 168 million working days are lost to
sickness, costing the UK economy nearly £12bn a year

About 23 million days, costing £1.7bn, are suspected to come from workers
taking ‘fake’ sick days. That equates to 6.8 working days, at a cost of £495,
per worker

The worst days of the week for staff absence are Monday and Friday – 90% of
firms report problems on those days

One in four SMEs have admitted to being too scared to tackle problem staff,
due to a fear of being sued

Nine out of 10 firms say they would tackle problem staff if they had the
legal confidence to do so

According to the CBI,the average public sector worker takes 9.1 days off sick
each year, compared with an average of 6.4 days in the private sector

Those employing 5,000 staff or more averaged 8.3 days per employee in 2004,
compared with 4.5 days in firms with fewer than 50 employees

The cost of absenteeism isn’t limited to the wages of the ill worker.There is
also the cost of replacing them through overtime or temporary cover and lost
service due to reduced productivity

Damage tomorale among the absent employee’s workmates and the consequent
further loss of productivity is more difficult to

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