Let’s Talk About National Sickie Day

Most days seem to be a National Day of Something — and today is no exception: it’s National Sickie Day. According to most sources, the first Monday in February is the most common day for Britons to call in sick – as many as 350,000 of us. Other figures bandied around claim that the cost to the economy in lost productivity is £34,000,000 today alone.

Like most of these stats, finding a credible source is difficult. Like our old friend ‘Blue Monday’ it seems to be largely a thing for companies to hang their hat on to promote this or that service if you’re being uncharitable — or a way of raising awareness of genuine issues if you’re feeling less cynical.

An interesting fact that I happened across recently though is this snippet from the Office of National Statistics. It paints a very different picture. The number of days lost to sickness is at a record low.

The ONS is of course a highly reliable source of data and the facts show a very different picture to that being hyped by National Sickie Day: absence is falling. Not only is it falling, but it’s by a considerable amount — from an average of 7.1 days in 1993 to just 4.3 days in 2017.

So is absence itself a problem? Well that depends on your own situation. Some companies do have very poor attendance records – and this is often linked to the type of business. It has long been known that absence rates in the public sector are higher than in the private sector for example; but when you consider that that includes firemen, nurses, the police and so on then that should be no surprise. Some jobs are more physically or mentally demanding than others.

So the downward trend could tell us one of three things:

  1. People are generally healthier than they were 25 years ago.
  2. Companies have got much better at helping employees with illness
  3. There is a different problem: one of presenteeism.

Now possibly, there is a combination of all three at play here: after all, probably points 1 and 2 are true. There have been a lot of change in healthcare and employer attitudes over the last 25 years.

So I’d like to take this moment to talk about presenteeism.

What the ruddy heck is presenteeism when it’s at home?

Employees can sometimes feel obligated to come into work when they are actually ill. A company’s culture might make them feel intimidated or ashamed to admit to illness, so they find themselves tipping up behind their desk despite feeling terrible.

Sometimes, managers can be openly hostile to the idea of sickness – boasting about how little time they’ve had off themselves. This can set a tone of suspicion whenever people do phone in sick.

Why is it a problem?

Firstly, someone who is genuinely ill isn’t likely to be much use to the business if they come in. Physically and mentally, they will be operating at sub-optimal levels. The price you pay in having a full complement of staff is, counter intuitively – lower productivity.

Secondly, there’s the risk of spreading illness around. One person’s ‘bravery’ in turning up with the ‘flu could result in a rash of absences in the business as a whole.

How do I know if I’ve got a problem with absence or presenteeism?

I’m often surprised to come across companies who simply don’t know what their sickness record is. The starting point is as simple as maintaining comprehensive records: who phoned in. When did they phone in. What did they say. Who took the call. What follow-up action (if any) was taken.

Without this kind of basic record keeping, it’s impossible to know whether a business has a problem with absence other than a vague sense about certain individuals’ attendance.

I always recommend that companies perform proper auditing before they even start to think about dealing with a perceived problem. It’s the first building block towards building a sustainable approach to the problem.

Away from these formal processes — which can lead to disciplinary issues (and if you need help on that front: look no further!) — managers need to cultivate their awareness. Partly this is through day to day observation, but also through developing a culture which takes both sickness and presenteeism seriously.

There’s a lot more that can be said on the subject, but I’m going to take a pinch of my own advice here and go have a cup of tea. Self care is important.

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