Sunday, 1 May 2011

Throw a sickie – A worsening conundrum

There certainly are many important issues on the HR Professionals’ agenda requiring a great deal of attention, efforts and resources to be properly addressed; amongst these the phenomenon of fictitious sickness is regrettably destined to stay high at the top. “Throw a sickie” is an expression used to indicate that an employee will not go to work on a given day on account of being unwell; indeed this expression is used when the person is not actually ill, but rather feigns illness.
The vast majority of employers know from experience that this undesirable employee “practice” does produce detrimental effects both from the financial and organizational point of view. Notwithstanding, for different reasons, organizations have habitually found it rather difficult tackling and stemming the problem, and latest research shows that the magnitude of the phenomenon is indeed growing, rather than declining.

The findings of an investigation conducted by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI, 2010), revealed that by reason of the “throw a sickie” phenomenon in 2009 went wasted in the UK 27 million working days, which accounted for an estimated total loss of £17 billion. A similar research (PwC, 2011) showed that this cost reached in 2010 a staggering £32 billion. The investigation, which was administered to the employees of 2,000 companies worldwide, revealed that UK’s workers have an average 10 days “unscheduled absence” from work every year, nearly the double figure of their American counterpart, who recorded an average rate of 5.5 days a year. The UK data, albeit similar to that recorded in Western Europe countries where the average absence rate reached 9.7 days a year, appears to be even more alarming whether compared with the Asia-Pacific score, where a 4.5 average rate was recorded.
Absenteeism is a conundrum British, but clearly not only British, businesses need to devote particular attention to and do whatever they can to solve. Illness represents the most recurring cause for employee absenteeism but more often than not defining the boundaries between sickness and sickie proves to be a very tricky feat to perform. Investigating and identifying the real causes behind absenteeism assume hence a greater importance and represent necessary activities for putting employers in a position to effectively and properly tackle the issue.
As suggested by Phelps (2011), dissatisfaction with one’s job can actually cause an individual feeling unwell and hamper his/her capability and willingness to return to work as early as possible when actually ill. A relatively recent survey carried out by the Department for Work and Pension (DWP), the “General practitioners' attitudes towards patients' health and work” report, revealed that 61 percent of GPs “somewhat or completely” agreed that the fit note had helped them discussing with patients their return to work (the notes issued by GPs provide employers information about the tasks and activities these can perform returning to work in order to favour and speed their return up). The study also revealed that 70 percent of the surveyed GPs consider fit notes effective to plan a phased return to work of their patients, whereas nearly the entire panel, that is to say 99 percent, agreed on the beneficial effects of work for individual health.

The positive impact on individual health and well-being of having a job is also confirmed by the findings of a recent investigation conducted by Comres on behalf of the insurance company Legal and General, which revealed that Britain’s family doctors, albeit with a different frequency, regularly see the individuals who have been dismissed by their employer.

Commenting on the PwC investigation findings Phelps contended that it is hence untrue that “the US culture of long hours and short holidays” necessarily implies higher absenteeism rates. It may be rather argued that it is possibly by virtue of their higher level of engagement and commitment that US employees are better able to counterbalance and cope with stress and pressure in the workplace.
It can be indeed identified a number of reasons why American and Asian workers are in general more incline to go the extra mile; amongst these flexible labour laws play indeed a remarkable role. Individuals are in fact well aware that commitment is, first of all, important as a means to secure their job stability. Yet, American organizations are typically more active and more generous than British firms when planning resources to improve their workforce well-being.

The Comres study revealed that British businesses actually struggle to effectively and properly manage illness and absence due to illness in the workplace. Buckley (2011) maintains that many organizations lack the specialist knowledge and do not deploy the required resources to rehabilitate employees returning to work after absence due to illness-related reasons, whereas these should put in place what it takes to provide a bespoke support to make employee return to work from illness smoother and easier.
Absenteeism can be in many respects regarded as the antonym of engagement. Phelps contends to this respect that good absence policies, capable to deter unscheduled absences, whereas protecting employees absent by reason of genuine illness, can effectually help. Although this view is absolutely supportable in that specific sickness policies enable employers to make clear, since the very beginning, the importance these attach to the phenomenon, things may prove not to be as straightforward as expected in practice.
Organizations habitually have good and potentially effective policies on paper; the real problem is that these policies are not consistently implemented in practice. In this instance, it is not indeed a matter of an undesirable “knowing - doing gap”, in most cases the gap is in fact intentional. Employers find it difficult dealing with this conundrum fearing that taking appropriate action may make a negative impact on employee relations and produce disastrous effects on staff motivation, engagement and morale. This approach is typically more spread across public sector organizations, which possibly helps to explain why the employers of this sector traditionally record the highest absence levels.
The findings of the PwC investigation also revealed the existence of remarkable differences according to the different sectors of industry. With 7.6 days a year, for instance, technology sector employers recorded the lowest absence rate, followed by banking and finance with an average 7.8 days a year. In contrast, retail and leisure with an average 11.5 days a year and public sector employers with the average score of 12.2 recorded the highest absence rates.
The difficulties encountered by organizations in effectively and properly dealing with this conundrum can be partly comprehended; nonetheless, to avert encouraging this employee undesirable behaviour, it is necessary for employers to take firm, immediate action. Whether the only employer reaction to this conduct would just be to turn the blind eye, individuals may think that their employer is somewhat of supporting or, if anything, not condemning this behaviour. Whether this should be the message received by individuals, the consequences would be catastrophic. Feigning illness would no longer be seen by individuals as a “don’t” but rather as a “do”, people who are not used to throw a sickie might feel inspired and decide to jump on the “throw a sickie bandwagon”, too. Unscheduled absence would thus seriously risk completely spinning out of the employer control.

The circumstance that good policies are in place on paper and that these are not consistently implemented in practice can just produce a magnified negative impact. Employees are encouraged to assume that their employer does not really attach any importance to unscheduled absences and fictitious sickness: policies are a nice to have, but nobody actually cares. It cannot be indeed considered appropriate not having any absence policy in place either; albeit in this instance employees would, if anything, find it difficult understanding “beyond reasonable doubt” how their employer regards the issue and intends to deal with it. In both cases, the major risks employers run is that with the passing of time the throw a sickie practice may become part of an organization culture, making it much harder, whether not impossible, to revert the trend at any given time in the future.

Recent studies regrettably show that the throw a sickie worsening trend is already underway; employers are strongly advised to carefully think over the way they currently deal and would rather prefer to deal with the phenomenon. What matters the most is that, irrespective of their final decision, the approach these decide to adopt is fruit of their precise choice and not of inertia. The problem is there already, it is hence time for employers to learn how to effectually tackle and overcome it.

Longo, R., (2011), Throw a sickie – A worsening conundrum; HR Professionals, [online].