We all know that ‘pulling a sickie’ from work isn’t acceptable. But it turns out it’s something that many people here in the UK have no qualms about doing.

A recent study has discovered that more than half of UK adults (56%) have “pulled a sickie” at least once in the last year to enjoy a day off work. The same survey also found 1 in 10 British workers (9%) admit that they call in sick on a regular basis, despite not being unwell.

staff absence work

That attitude towards feigning illness isn’t a new phenomenon, either. A survey we conducted back in 2015 found nearly half of 500 workers said they had considered faking illness to get time off work – with 1 in 14 confessing to have done it three or more times.

Interestingly though, when we asked employees whether they felt it was acceptable to pull a sickie, 60% said it was never acceptable, regardless of the circumstances – although it hadn’t stopped 15 per cent of them doing it anyway…

So, the British workforce seem to acknowledge that taking illicit sick leave is a bad thing, yet over half went ahead and faked an illness anyway. What’s going on?

Separating the fact from fictitious

The findings are clearly not good news for managers and HR teams. Unplanned absences are both costly and disruptive to businesses – especially at a time when British productivity has been under the microscope.

Not only that, there’s also the resentment unplanned absences can cause among colleagues. They’ll be the ones who inevitably have to pick up the pieces for fellow workers who they suspect are not genuinely ill, which can ultimately lead to negative or even toxic cultures.

HR Software can of course do much to help employers track overall absence levels in their business, identify trends or highlight serial offenders. But the data doesn’t answer the key question – which is why people feel they can’t be honest about the reasons they are not coming into work.

Getting employees to fess up to the real reasons why they are off work isn’t easy – but it would certainly be fascinating for any employer to have a breakdown of the genuine causes. Here’s what could really be driving those random sick days in your organisation…

Employee disengagement and stress

How much short-term absence, for example, is down to people being so disengaged with their job that they simply can’t face dragging themselves out from under their duvets? Perhaps poor workplace relationships are to blame? Or maybe they struggling to cope with the pressures and demands being placed upon them?

When someone doesn’t feel a connection to their job or is continually stressed out by it, they’ll be more inclined to sneak a day off just to feel a sense of relief.

Care responsibilities

You might find employees are taking time off ‘ill’ because they need to care for others. It could be because a close relative or family member is poorly or requires help with attending a medical appointment. Another common reason could be that an employee’s childcare arrangements have broken down and they’ve been left (literally) holding the baby at short notice.

These are obviously sensitive issues for managers and HR to deal with. People often feel they can’t be up front about them in case managers feel they are not able to cope with the job. Or, they may feel care responsibilities like this will put them first in line if redundancies are on the horizon, or will pass them over for promotion because they fear they will be unreliable.

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Life admin

We’ve all had those weekends that seem to disappear under a mountain of chores. Life admin tasks – like sorting out car insurance, paying the council tax or collecting packages from the Post Office – can all eat up valuable personal time, leaving little opportunity to rest before another busy work week.

With huge numbers of professionals working longer hours, it can become difficult to stay on top of everyday life admin tasks. You may have employees who have such a lot to do and organise in their personal lives that they feel the only way they can cope is to take an illicit sick day.

Precious annual leave

Lastly, annual leave days are a vital employee commodity. You may find that employees are using sickness as a cover rather than use annual leave entitlement: but not necessarily just to sneak a day off under the duvet. For example, those with families may take a sick day in order to look after an unwell child rather than use up their holiday leave.

What can be done?

Ultimately, it comes down to the culture of a business – something that HR professionals and managers are ideally placed to help influence. For instance, if a company has an open and supportive culture, an employee is much more likely to seek help or advice if they’re struggling with a workplace relationship or finding the pressures of work too much to bear.

Someone who is worried about whether an elderly relative is safe, anxious because their child is poorly or feels they have no-one to talk to about a difficult work situation is not going to have their mind on the job.

If managers are sympathetic and supportive, those with caring responsibilities are more likely to be up front about the fact they have an emergency. They can then work with their manager to find a way they can work from home, swap shifts with a colleague, explore flexible working options or just make the time up.

It’s also about companies encouraging a more compassionate approach to managing people. It’s not about being soft or turning a blind eye to illicit sickness absences – far from it. If people are abusing the system and taking time off because they think they can get away with it, the situation needs to be dealt with.

It is, however, about recognising that work and personal lives are inter-twined, and people cannot always compartmentalise the personal stuff when it’s time to knuckle down for work.

Those with busy personal lives may feel like they’re having to fit their lives around work. As a result, they may feel as if they don’t have enough free time to either manage their personal lives or pursue their passions. This is where HR and managers can look to investigate whether there is anything they can do to support a work-life balance that is good for employees and the organisation; perhaps an opportunity to take a sabbatical, work a compressed week, or buy extra annual leave?

Managers and HR teams who make it easy for people to take off their ‘show face’ and admit that they need a bit of leeway or support are much more likely to win the trust and respect of their people and making ‘pulling a sickie’ much less common.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.

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