There’s something inately human that seeds doubt in our minds about whether people’s illnesses are genuine, especially when it comes to absence in the workplace. Maybe it’s the UK’s history of generous health benefits coupled with a selfish reluctance to cover other people’s backs, but unless someone’s displaying clearly observable severe symptoms there’s often suspicion. The Confederation of British Industry tells us that just over 20% of the workforce see paid sickness absence as an entitlement rather than an unfortunate emergency (CBI survey 2013). Whether this is supported by the same level of fraudulent activity, we’ll probably never know.
Absence levels increase with age. On the face of it this would indicate declining health as people get older. Yet contrary to this theory is the fact that absence falls after state pension age. This may be due to only the most dedicated workers remaining in employment when they could retire, but this is probably not the whole picture. Many of today’s pensioners will remember the UK prior to the introduction of the National Health Service, alongside a welfare system much tougher and sporadically provided than it is today. Only those who worked were entitled to minimal care by a doctor via unemployment and illness insurance which was fifty percent funded by employers. This excluded the majority of women and children, because they didn’t work. Medicines and care were both expensive and not as advanced as today. The very poor might receive some charitable assistance, or end up in a workhouse where they were deemed in need of reform. Illness was often the start of the slippery slope towards death and there was simply no incentive to fake it.
I’m not suggesting we return to those days in order to strike out the (hopefully) small minority. Non-genuine sickness is always going to be a difficult subject because it’s unfortunate for those who really are sick. Human Resources practitioners aren’t medically qualified and are forced to rely on those who are to help them get the answers they need to make tough decisions. Yet more than three quarters of GPs feel under pressure to issue sick notes (DWP survey). With the need for more practical answers I think it’s helpful to understand the root causes, and with that in mind I propose that the two main issues are upbringing, and culture.
My sickness absence history is very minimal and a large part of that is due to my parent’s attitude. While they never explicitly told me as much, I know for certain it was their philosophy that if you’re well enough to stand, you go to work as normal. The guilt I felt at my parent’s disappointment would still stop me in my tracks today.
There’s no denying that welfare affects people’s behaviour. This is demonstrated throughout the history of the welfare state and most recently by the decline in sickness absence alongside welfare reform. Putting aside the stressful effects of the recession, many employees under pressure of redundancy were no doubt just grateful to keep a job and the question of taking a sick day didn’t come into it. Yet underlying all this is people’s general attitude to work, absence and perhaps even honesty. While we can’t undo a person’s upbringing or unravel their complex personality traits, there’s one key element employers can impact upon. This brings me to my second cause.
Employee perks such as the “unlimited duvet days” being proffered by companies like Virgin and Netflix are enough to strike fear into the heart of even the most laissez faire manager. In theory they imagine deserted offices and employees pushing it as far as they can. In practice the pressures of performance targets and presenteeism likely mean that those employees take less leave than average. This is glossed over in a big PR employee trust exercise. Underlying this is the fact that if you prove yourself untrustworthy you can forget the privileges, along with your job.
It’s always going to be a difficult balance to strike between protecting the genuinely ill and weeding out those who are abusing the scheme. Like upbringing, culture is a very personal thing and it depends how organisations want to play it. There will always be an element of carrot and stick, of give and take. It’s not trust alone, but a complicated mix of inputs, outputs and management relationships. Employees who respect that culture will feel those emotions like guilt and wanting to avoid disappointment, and in the absence of workhouses and moral correction, I’m afraid that’s the only option we have left.
Image credit: from Time Out article “Fake a sick-day call”