Managing sickies

Shalini Shukla 27 Nov 2012

Unscheduled absenteeism rates have been rising across the world, and what’s worse, employees who don’t show up for work often aren’t physically ill.

For instance, according to research from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a third of workers in the UK openly admit to “skiving”.

Workers aged between 18 and 34 are the most common culprits. Forty per cent of skivers will fake symptoms such as sniffing and losing their voice the day before taking a sick day. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, employees will use props such as bandages and crutches to convince their bosses they are indeed ill.

When HR professionals pore through their employees’ sick leave records, one thing that will likely strike them is the disproportionate number of times staff are ill on Fridays and Mondays, or on days adjacent to long weekends.

“A conversation with an employee to ask why their leave pattern is so peculiar is often sufficient to put them on notice that the pattern is being watched – and the pattern breaks” says Loh Lean San, HR Director, Asia-Pacific, for wire and rope manufacturer Bridon Singapore.

Why workers take “sickies”

Although boredom, and depression at work (61%) are the most common reasons for taking time off work, some truant workers also cite good weather (11%), hangovers (18%) and romance (5%) as the real reasons behind their absences.

“Absenteeism costs British businesses around £32 billion (US$51 billion) a year, but our findings suggest a large chunk of this loss is preventable,” says Neil Roden, HR consulting partner at PwC. “If people are bored and depressed with their jobs, employers need to think creatively how they can get people back in gear.”

Like a lot of discipline issues, absenteeism is caused by poor leadership under which the recalcitrant staff think and know that they can get away with it, opines Loh. “Setting the rules clearly and enforcing it fairly is key,” he says. ‘Fairly’ means addressing real underlying issues if it has to do with health.”

The issue plagues workers in operational areas with mundane jobs more than others. “But really, it is where leadership is poor (and) can be in any function,” Loh adds.

The buck lies with line managers

For most companies, the responsibility for managing absenteeism is primarily on immediate supervisors and line managers.

“These supervisors are often the only people who are aware that a certain employee is absent,” says Stefani Yorges, professor of psychology at West Chester University and executive coach with the Center for Positive Leaders. “They are, therefore, in the best position to understand the circumstances surrounding an individual’s absence and to notice a problem at an early stage.”

Loh agrees that it is important is to hold line managers accountable for the performance of their teams. “Often, poor supervisors and line managers look at discipline as an HR responsibility, rather than theirs,” he says.

Once they have accepted that it is their responsibility, Loh explains it is then often about coaching managers on how to have ‘tough but necessary conversations’ with staff on such issues. “HR can coach and then sit in,” he adds.

He cites an example of a supervisor who complained about staff absenteeism. He was coached and then instructed to have a meeting with Loh and the employee in question.

Absenteeism control

Prevention may be easier than cure, given the lengths people often go to cover their tracks. According to the PwC survey, illness is the favoured excuse for 83% of “skivers”, with four out of ten even faking symptoms around the office in preparation for a day off. The illness of choice though, is always one which is difficult to prove: half of all excuses involve gastro-related problems.

“Employers need to use both carrots and sticks,” advises Roden. “If it’s very easy to call in sick, or you don’t even need to call at all, people are more likely to abuse the system. But if there’s more of a process to follow, people are more likely to think twice about taking time off.”

Still, paying for sick leave does end up saving employers money as workers with this benefit are less likely to be injured on the job, allowing them to remain more productive. According to a study by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, employees with access to paid sick leave were found to have a 28% lowered risk of workplace injury than people without it.

HR can also drive employee wellness initiatives that increase awareness about the importance of a healthy lifestyles and put in place programmes that encourage employees to take ownership of their own health.

“For example, in some companies, employees get additional dollars in their healthcare spending pool if they go for regular health screening, achieve certain KPIs with regards to their body mass index and participate in the company’s wellness campaigns which can focus on exercise, healthy diet and stress management,” says Dr Wong Weng Hong, CEO, AsiaMedic.

“For companies with in-house canteens, there is also a trend of HR working with the canteen operators to set healthier menus with health tips pasted all around to reinforce the message,” he adds.

Another key solution to the problem of absenteeism is to make sure staff are not overworked with continuous long hours for example. Loh suggests having a conversation with managers if this is occurring.

“Employers can also have planned leave rather than saving annual leave for potential encashment. Limiting leave carryover helps reduce this misguided thinking,” says Loh. “Either way, we need to know and do something.”


Fit notes replace MCs

The Statement of Fitness to Work, or “fit note” replaced the sick note or medical certificate (MC) in the UK in April 2010. The fit note allows doctors to categorise employees as ‘may be fit for work’, as well as ‘unfit for work’. Its aim is to encourage more employees with health problems to agree with their employer about a phased return-to-work, such as reduced hours or the use of varied duties, as part of their rehabilitation and recovery.

According to findings by the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth Absence Management survey, more than half of employers (52%) agree that the introduction of the fit note has enabled line managers to open up important conversations about absence and health issues with their staff and discuss the best way to help get individuals back to work.

Less encouragingly, the survey suggests employers remain unconvinced that the fit note has yet had much impact in helping to reduce levels of employee sickness absence. Just one in ten respondents (11%) said the fit note had reduced absence in their organisation.

Jill Miller, CIPD Adviser, says: “This is perhaps not surprising, considering the culture change needed by general practitioners (GPs), employers and employees to ensure that a phased return-to-work is more frequently regarded as a positive and integral part of employees’ rehabilitation and recovery.”

“GPs and employers need to work from the same page, promoting what is best for the individual employee’s health and well-being, but also what makes sense for the business,” Miller adds.

She says employees too need to be more forthcoming and willing to enter these discussions. She advises policy makers not to be discouraged as it may well take five years or so before the fit note is consistently used effectively and viewed more favourably by GPs, employers and employees, to support early and lasting returns to work.



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