Taking “sickies” costs UK industry billions of pounds a year. The Institute of Personnel and Development’s Angela Baron explains how employers can wean staff off the habit.
Is absenteeism a real problem in the UK?

About one million people will fail to turn up for work today. Another million will not turn up tomorrow, or the following day. The CBI estimates that these absences cost the UK economy about £12bn a year. Yet 25% of companies are so unconcerned, they don’t even check who comes to work and who does not. A further 50% have no idea how much absent employees are costing them.

What do these figures include?

These figures do not include holidays or authorised paid leave. They relate solely to people on “sick leave”. We are all ill sometimes, but some get sicker than others. The sickness absence rate in the public sector is 40% higher than in private firms. Manual workers take more sick leave than managers and, according to Industrial Society figures, women are more likely to be absent than men.

But are all these people taking a “sickie”?

Of course not. There are some explanations for the CBI’s findings. Manual workers are more likely to be exposed to hazardous circumstances where they may be injured. Women are more likely to need time off to look after a sick child. However, the single most important factor influencing absence rates is the employer taking an interest. Even within the same industry and for the same types of workers, the incidence of sickness absence can vary from an average of two days a year per employee, to nearly a fortnight.

How should firms tackle absenteeism?

About one million people will fail to turn up for work today. The CBI estimates that these absences cost the UK economy £12bn a year

Measuring absence and making figures available to staff will make a difference. Once people realise that their absence is being noted, they think twice about taking a sickie. It can also change attitudes. If employees think it is normal to take the odd day off, that “everybody does it”, they are more likely to be absent. Some may even feel it is their right to take a certain number of sick days.

How can employers discourage this view?

Supporting employees with family commitments by offering family leave or flexible working can help to manage attendance. Promoting health at work by giving access to medical screening or fitness programmes can prevent sickness absence and increase motivation generally.

Do companies need a set procedure for allowing sick leave?

Employers that operate a rigid system with lots of notice needed for the odd day off, or penalties for taking less than a full day may leave themselves open to abuse from antagonised employees. The gas man does not book visits three months in advance and domestic emergencies have a habit of cropping up when you least expect them.

So, what should an absence policy actually cover?