News & Views

National sickie day

BY Heather Kemmett
Employment law
BG Purple

We all know the familiar phenomenon of January blues; the dreary combination of post-festive depression, bad weather, short days, high bills, winter bugs and the next public holiday both tantalisingly and tortuously distant on the horizon.

And the upshot of all this gloom and doom is that the first Monday in February is National Sickie Day. That’s right, the one day of the year when employees are most likely to throw a sickie than any other. 

Figures show that National Sickie Day costs UK businesses in the region of £34 million. And the cost of absenteeism over the whole year is worse. According to a Government-commissioned review published in 2012, the UK loses 140 million working days per year to sickness absence- with employers picking up the tab for a staggering £9 billion worth of sick pay. A further 300,000 employees end up falling out of work each year and are forced to rely on state benefits at a cost of £13 billion to the UK taxpayer.  

Added to the financial burden, employers face the associated headaches of decreased productivity, loss of workforce morale and adverse impact on service or product delivery. And then there’s the thorny issue of how to manage absence. It’s not unknown for workers to pull their best Darth Vader death-scene impersonation down the phone, only for an employer to find out later that they were fit as a fiddle and painting the town red. And sometimes employees forgo their Oscar-worthy performances altogether in favour of an email or text purporting to explain their absence.  

It is tempting to let this sort of thing slide, but it is a good idea for employers to insist that absence reporting procedures are properly adhered to so that they can take action if employees continue to flout the rules. Record keeping is essential- employers should try to have robust systems in place to record absences and how they are reported. It is also a good idea to hold back to work meetings after absences to explore the reasons for absence and investigate suspicions that absences are not genuine. 

Where an employer has a reasonable belief that the absence is not genuine, they can take disciplinary action against the employee and even withhold sick pay where their policy allows. Where there is no evidence it can be tempting for managers to jump to the conclusion that short term, sporadic absences are not genuine, particularly at this time of year. Employers should be wary of doing so or they could open themselves to the risk of a constructive dismissal or disability HR claim. It can be frustrating if there is no reason to act on suspicions, but putting in place clear record keeping should enable employers to spot patterns in absence and to get a better overall picture of when absence levels are becoming unacceptably high, at which point they will be in a better position to take action.  

Taking steps to manage short term absences should help stem the tide of absenteeism, but no employer is likely to be successful in eradicating absence problems completely. At this time of year it is hardly surprising that staff morale is low, but rather than admit defeat in the face of winter blues some businesses are employing a dash of ingenuity to try to boost spirits and reduce absenteeism. 

One initiative is the American practice of giving staff “duvet days”, recognising that sometimes we would all benefit from giving in to the urge to throw the alarm clock across the room and snuggle back to sleep. The idea of duvet days is that staff can use a certain number of days (either in addition to or as part of annual leave entitlement) where they can give in to lethargy at short notice without booking holidays in advance or chalking up a sickness absence record. 

Other proposals include giving shift workers more flexibility to swap shifts or adopting the practice of “shift sliding” where employees have a set amount of days that they can call in to “slide” their early morning shift to a later start time. Yet another proposal embraced by some UK businesses is the idea of allowing staff to “earn” duvet days by keeping a clean absence and lateness record for a set number of months. Of course, this throws up some challenges around disabled workers who may need to take sick leave because of their illness, but could be feasible nonetheless. 

Another common challenge for businesses is the perennial difficulty of dealing with employees who are off on long term sickness absence. If the medical complaint is physical, most of the time the reasons why an employee needs to take an extended absence will be plain and a return to work can usually be predicted. However, when employees who go off sick with diagnoses such as anxiety/stress and it can be difficult to determine when a return to work is likely. 

Added to this, employees have been known to fall off the radar once their long term sick line has been submitted in the belief that their employer cannot contact them. Often it is a good idea to give the employee some space if they are struggling with their mental health, but that does not mean that employers are powerless to manage the absence. Managers should ensure that employees are aware of their expectations around keeping in contact and try to arrange regular welfare meetings to try to get a better understanding of the illness and whether there are any measures that the business can put in place to help the employee return to work. Getting consent from the employee to obtain medical reports is also key to managing the absence and helps inform decisions about the employee’s long term future with the business.

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