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Annie Hayes



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Degrees of tolerance: Stamping out summer sickies


Summer sickiesIt’s of little surprise that when the thermometer peaks, workers trade a day in the office for one soaking up the rays. Annie Hayes finds out how to handle those suspicious summer ‘sickies’.

Good weather brings temptation and when a heatwave is combined with sporting events the combination can prove too much for some. Wimbledon is a good example. When the tennis championships hit our screens earlier this summer, thousands of employees were said to have pulled a ‘fast one’ in order to watch Andy Murray face his ultimate rival, Rafael Nadal.

It’s a problem that is no laughing matter. Personnel software company Employersafe suggests that employees dodging work already cost British business £1 million a week, adding to Britain’s £13 billion workplace absenteeism crisis.

So should there be a special policy on absence over the summer?

Policy practice

“If an employee says they are sick, it is virtually impossible for an employer to prove they weren’t.”

Esther Smith, Thomas Eggar LLP

Esther Smith, partner and employment law expert at Thomas Eggar LLP believes that, in reality, it is very difficult to compile a helpful policy that focuses solely on combating summer sickies:

“It is very difficult to create any sort of policy or guidance on this issue, as it is unlikely to actually be of much practical help to you! There will always be some employees who take more time off sick in the summer, when they are not genuinely unfit for work, but equally there will be employees who are genuinely ill at this time and you cannot legislate against that – you can’t tell people not to be sick!”

HR consultant Quentin Colborn agrees, and says that summer shouldn’t be any different to any other time of year and, as Smith points out, there are other peaks and troughs that reside over the calendar year that also prove tricky, such as Christmas and bank holidays.

Spotting the fraudulent sickies

Smith admits it largely boils down to having sufficient evidence; although saying that it can be very difficult to pick out fake absence, particularly when absence is scattered, with days off being ‘here’ and ‘there’.

“If an employee says they are sick, then it is virtually impossible for an employer to prove they weren’t. Obviously if you have some information to show that they were working elsewhere, or were down the pub or playing football when they had called in sick, you may be able to progress disciplinary action, subject to the correct procedures,” says Smith.

Some employers do go down the route of requiring employees to produce a doctor’s certificate for any period of sickness, irrespective of length. Smith says this is fine if it is a contractual provision, but warns that a doctor will charge for a certificate issued for less than seven days’ absence, and the employer will have to pick up this cost, meaning that for many this may not really be a practical solution, and may not be a sufficient deterrent either.

Keeping an ear to the ground and checking out rumours about employees should not be sniffed at either, says Colborn: “Colleagues are often unhappy about one member of the team swinging the lead and leaving others to pick up the work. But do remember to take action on facts not rumour.” This, says Colborn, means monitoring absence patterns and in particular looking out for trends that sees sickies rise on Fridays and Mondays.

Stamping out persistent absence

Of course there are those that always take it one step further. Smith says that consistency is the key for dealing with exceptional levels of absence: “Taking a rigorous approach to absence management will help. Holding return to work interviews and calling people to account for their absences on their return will make some think twice about calling in sick when they don’t need to.”

Of course, instigating disciplinary procedures for excessive absence will certainly curb temptation, and Smith says that HR should not be afraid to use this route if the level of absence justifies it.

“Colleagues are often unhappy about one member of the team swinging the lead and leaving others to pick up the work. But do remember to take action on facts not rumour.”

Quentin Colborn, HR consultant

“Some employers rely on systems such as the Bradford Factor to score employees for their absence, and a high number of short absences will give rise to a high score. This system is fine if it is used to trigger the HR assessment of a particular case, rather than being the trigger for a disciplinary warning to be issued,” she says.

John Sellars, managing director of Employ-Mend Limited, agrees that consistency is the key and says that it is crucial to ensure that all absence is accurately and consistently measured and that breaches of policy triggers and patterns are followed through to attendance interviews every time.

“Some organisations already have policy triggers related to numbers of Monday/Friday absences in addition to the more familiar x days in y months and/or Bradford scores. Employees who are prone to taking frequent absences over the summer months (or at any other time) effectively self-select for the attendance interviews and it is therefore vital that such opportunities are tracked and followed through.

“The follow through will also be of great importance to the long suffering employees who are filling the gaps and covering for absent employees,” he adds.

Every breach should lead to an attendance interview with an outcome, whether that is continued close monitoring for a period, an occupational health referral or a start point for the disciplinary procedures. Sellars says this is the secret of culture change – a single policy uniformly applied.

Peter Mooney, from Employersafe, says that where a pattern is emerging, it can ultimately be suggested that something is clearly wrong with the employee. “HR can then request that the employee signs a consent form allowing them to speak to their doctor,” he comments.

Mooney suggests a list of dates are sent to the GP and a report is requested: “At this point, if the GP has not actually seen the employee for a long time, they will ask the patient to come in and this is often a good deterrent for someone who keeps taking the odd sick day.”

HR initiatives

Sadly it seems there are no magic bullets to tackling the problems of seasonal absence. Yet there are a couple of weapons in the HR armoury that can stamp out the wider problems.

“One thing that does work incredibly well in deterring the short-term persistent absence is to withhold sick pay for the first or first two days of sickness absence,” says Smith. “If an employee is losing a day’s pay (as well as knowing that they will be interviewed on their return and that their absences levels overall may trigger disciplinary action) they will not call in sick unless they really need to.”

“If the GP has not actually seen the employee for a long time, they will ask the patient to come in and this is often a good deterrent for someone who keeps taking the odd sick day.”

Peter Mooney, Employersafe

Such a step may require extensive consultation with employees if it requires a change in current contractual arrangements. Smith says, however, it may be worth offering an additional day’s holiday in return for a reduction in sick pay.

“Another rather innovative and very generous idea implemented by one of our clients is to operate an additional company day of paid holiday each year. This particular client felt that there was too long a break between the late May bank holiday and the August bank holiday so has invented a company day in between, which is an annual event – an extra day’s paid leave to the staff.

“The upside is a happy and valued workforce with a reduced sickness rate in the sunny summer months. The only other option may be to relocate the business to somewhere less sunny – but given our current summer weather, why bother,” laughs Smith.

Mooney remarks that some firms allow specific employees to stagger their work time or take extra time on request if, for example, major sporting events occur during normal work time. “This is a more enlightened benefit from showing some flexibility toward their employees’ needs and hopefully encouraging them not to be absent.”

Clear and consistent attendance and tracking policies is the key. Colborn also suggests outlawing voicemail messages and texts as means of conveying absence to management. The advice is sensible – with grown up systems, employees find fewer excuses to resort to childish behaviour.

2 Responses

  1. A new approach to the ‘sickie’
    Hi all,

    In most companies there are currently only two options for an employee to take time off work, book a holiday or call-in sick.

    I believe a sensible approach to absence from work would kill off the sickie.

    Off the top of my head introduce a ‘things to-do day’

    1. Unpaid by the employer.
    2. Employee is happy to be doing the right thing in their own mind e.g. where they can say “personal” and not feel guilty.

    1. Given at very short notice.

    I’m sure that whipping employees is NOT the answer to absence, for me it is all about fairness and understanding.


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