A third of workers are “pulling sickies” – how should HR react?

Over 30% of employees admit to calling in sick, when they’re not actually sick. This article looks at the reasons why, and how HR can help to address this.

Petru Tinca • 
A third of workers are “pulling sickies” – how should HR react?

A recent Linked-In poll by People Management revealed that 31% of people admitted to ‘pulling a sickie’, i.e. taking time off work for sickness when they are not actually sick.

These findings were backed up by a AXA Mind Health UK Poll which showed similar results, with 30% of employees admitting to taking time off work while actually being healthy.

What should interest people management and HR are the drill-down findings of the MetLife poll, revealing that the main reasons for this absence did not stem from cynicism. The key reason was burnout (40%), and the second was the need for a break from work (31%).

Other key reasons for faking sickness were:

  • To attend a necessary appointment (23%)
  • To deal with emergency childcare issues (17%)
  • To care for a relative (15%)
  • To avoid ongoing issues at work (13%)
  • To miss a deadline or avoid unwanted work (8%)

In many ways, this study is a gift because although it identifies the problems, it also provides HR and people managers with powerful cues as to where to direct their solutions. The good news is that before resorting to carrot or stick approaches, some of these issues can be addressed by applying existing legislation or industry norms to the HR process.

The Carer’s Leave Act is addressing this problem for employers, in part

For example, just over a month after this study was published, the Carer’s Leave Act which applies to all employees came into effect. It should immediately address the third most popular reason for faking sickness, ‘to care for a relative’.

Recognising the aging population and the increasing numbers of people acting as carers, this new law allows employees to take up to 5 days of unpaid leave per year to care for dependents with long-term needs. This includes parents, children, spouses, or non-family members if they rely on the employee for care.

Therefore, by updating their policies to reflect the new carer’s allowance (and communicating this to employees immediately), HR can effectively recognise this form of faking sickness by giving employees legitimate means to perform essential caring functions during working hours. This policy alone should entitle employees to time off to care for a relative and deal with emergency childcare issues, addressing 32% of the faking sickness issues. It will also partially remedy the problem by allowing employees time off to accompany dependents to appointments.

47% of UK employees are having mental health issues that impact the workplace

The other main reason cited for faking sickness was burnout. This is again worth looking at in a wider context.

Research from AXA Mind Health of over 30,000 people from 16 countries across Europe, the Americas, and Asia has revealed a staggering global burnout trend. UK employers are at the sharp end of this phenomenon, with the highest proportion of people ‘struggling’ mentally outside of the US. Their study showed that 47% of UK employees are either struggling in a state of emotional distress or languishing with an absence of positive well-being. Many UK employers may have been dragged into this mental health and burnout epidemic.

This is a systemic problem that can’t be fixed overnight, but the study did identify some low-hanging fruit that employers could target. Two findings that stood out were that 28% of people were struggling to separate work from non-work life, damaging their mental health as a result. The other was that 48% of 18-24-year-olds were suffering from a mental health condition compared to 22% of those over 55s.

The ’always on’ culture is a key culprit in the mental health crisis

Key interventions therefore include addressing any harmful ‘always on’ culture, by developing, bolstering, or simply re-emphasising any existing policy around switching off from work in the evenings and weekends and adding practical tips and firm recommendations. For example, our distinguished friend – Professor Sir Cary Cooper – wrote on our blog last year to advise that we switch off from emails out of hours.

With just over 50% of workers feeling there is adequate mental health support in their company, there is huge room for improvement here. With the AXA Mind Health study showing that employees with mental health support are twice as likely to be happy and three and a half times more likely to be ‘flourishing’, the way forward is clear. There is a range of free, affordable, or premium corporate mental health support tools and services that can be applied to your business today and that should improve mental health and reduce sick days.

In addition to this, employers again have the option of recognising mental health sickness by offering mental health days. This is when an employee is allowed to take a day off work to manage mental health issues like stress, overwhelm, burnout, anxiety, or depression.

Both the CIPD and solicitors argue that from a legal perspective, there’s no distinction between whether you’re off for work for a physical or mental health concern. Statutory sick pay compensates employees who are unfit for work but does not distinguish between mental or physical causes. As a result, we are seeing a trend of employers taking a more proactive approach to managing mental health sickness by offering mental health sick days as an allowance. This could be rolled up within the existing sickness allowance, or added as an additional allowance – but should be planned carefully before deployment. Davidson Morris offer some good advice on enacting such a policy.

Arguably, the solution to this faking sickness issue is less about punishment and more about the decriminalisation of the behaviour. This is done by accepting and acknowledging the wider mental health climate we all live in and allowing employees to be more open about their mental health issues which should both alleviate this harmful secondary stress (from having to hide their mental health issues) and allow employers to properly observe the problem and deliver more targeted solutions.