Not to be sneezed at: the etiquette of throwing a sickie

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ON THE eve of National Sickie Day, Dani Garavelli has some words of wisdom on the art of pulling a fast one

IF YOU wake up tomorrow morning, take one look at the weather and decide to bunk off work, you can console yourself that you’re in good company. Indeed, as you snuggle back under the duvet, congratulating yourself for your Oscar-worthy phone call to your boss, thousands of other malingering employees will be doing exactly the same thing.

Although many of them will have dispensed with the phone call. According to the Employment Law Advisory Service, it’s no longer necessary to cough your way affectedly through an actual conversation – a simple text is enough. In this age of virtual communication, texting “nt cming in 2day. am v sick”, is a socially acceptable means of announcing your absence to your line manager (though only if it’s sent in the morning as opposed to from the pub the night before). “Got hmmred, still puking” is not. Neither is spending your sick day on Facebook, as Australian call centre worker Kyle Doyle found out to his cost, when his updated status “not going to work. F*** it, still trashed, sickie, woo,” was spotted by someone in the human resources department.

Yes, tomorrow is National Sickie Day, the point in every year where the country’s enthusiasm for putting in a hard day’s graft reaches rock bottom and 375,000 workers stay at home at a cost of around £30 million to the economy.

Some will, of course, be genuinely ill. Colds and flu are rampant at the moment. But many more will be exploiting the sickness epidemic, and their bosses’ gullibility, to gain an extra day off.

According to the CBI, the UK economy lost 190 million working days to absence last year, with each employee taking an average of 6.5 days off sick. The total cost to employers was £17 billion, including more than £2.7bn from 30.4 million days of feigned illness.

Neither the introduction of the “fit note” – which is aimed at getting employees back to work – nor the economic crisis has dampened the sickness culture, with one-day absences still common on Mondays and Fridays and spiking around the time of big national events such as the royal wedding.

How serious an offence “throwing a sickie” is deemed to be seems to depend largely on which side of the worker/employer divide you’re on. Judging by the number of internet sites dedicated to boasting about it, skiving is seen by many as on a par with taking an envelope from the stationery cupboard. Indeed, when a 47-year-old Scotrail train driver was demoted after bosses found out he had taken a sick day to watch a Rangers match in Germany, members of the Aslef union threatened to come out on strike on his behalf. But to others – particularly those who have to pick up the slack –unauthorised absenteeism is a burden on other workers and the company itself.

“Employers don’t want genuinely ill staff dragging themselves into the workplace when they ought to be at home recovering,” says David Lonsdale, assistant director of CBI Scotland. “However, it is hugely unfair on colleagues if those who are fit enough to work just stay at home under the duvet and award themselves an extra day’s leave.”

So is taking a fly sick day – particularly as the result of a hangover – accepted practice or tantamount to theft? And should companies who find their sick rate soaring be cracking down harder or asking themselves if their inflexible attitudes are at the root of the problem?

With Christmas just a hazy memory and nary a hint of spring in the frost-encrusted soil, it’s no surprise the number of people who can’t face work will peak tomorrow. But, for employers, reduced productivity from absenteeism is a year-round problem which is particularly entrenched in the UK. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, British workers take more sick days than workers in the US or Japan, and public sector workers more sick days than their private sector counterparts.

A poll of 3,000 employees suggested younger workers were more likely to need time off than their battle-hardened elders, with 72 per cent of under-30s saying they had taken at least one sick day in the previous year compared with 46 per cent of over-55s.

In the US, veteran sickie-throwers may use the services of the Alibi Network, which, for less than $100, promises to provide a fake doctor’s note. In the UK, employees have to make do with tips from advice sites, such as: start coughing the day before, don’t make your excuse too complicated and stay away from TV cameras. But most opt for tried-and-tested methods such as ringing in early to leave a message on the voicemail or getting their partner to do their dirty work for them.

Despite this, not everyone thinks we are a nation of slackers. Many workers, experts say, take sick days not because they’re lazy but because they’re reluctant to tell their bosses about an unfolding domestic crisis. A survey of 1,000 workers commissioned by Lancaster University and risk insurer Ellipse suggested only a quarter of those taking sick days were genuinely unwell, with the other three-quarters either a bit run-down or experiencing problems such as a lack of childcare or an elderly relative in need of support.

“These employees don’t want to say the real reason they’re taking the day off because they think it will adversely affect them, but most of them actually do a bit of work – answering emails and suchlike – while they are at home,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology or health at Lancaster. “If their employers were more flexible, they could say: ‘Hey listen, my boiler’s broken down and I need to be at home, but I will work from there.’ ”

In the US, companies are catering for just such eventualities through the introduction of “duvet days” – three or four days which are built into the worker’s existing holiday allocation, but can be taken at short notice. In Scandinavia, too, it is quite acceptable to take “a mental health day”, time away from the stresses of the workplace which allows you to recharge your batteries.

There is some evidence British companies are trying to accommodate their workers’ needs. In 2010, some firms south of the Border allowed workers to swap shifts or take time off to watch the England World Cup matches in the belief it would boost morale and productivity for the rest of the week.

On the other hand, many others believe companies are not tough enough on those who are pulling a fast one. Although one third of bosses say they will sack workers caught throwing a sickie, many fail to carry out checks and admit the person who deals with absenteeism in their company is not really qualified for the job.

Steve Bell, director of the Scottish Centre of Healthy Working Lives, believes employees taking time off should be obliged to make direct contact with their line manager when they call in sick and, on return to work, should be interviewed to see if there’s an underlying problem.

Yet for all the problems absenteeism causes, presenteeism – people who turn up to work when they’re ill – may be more of a burden on employers. “All the research suggests presenteeism actually costs the economy twice as much as absenteeism,” says Cooper. “They [the workers who struggle in regardless] contribute no added value because they’re ill, but also they make other people ill by spreading their flu or whatever.”

Sounds like the perfect excuse for a day in bed.

If you are going to call in ‘sick’...

• Prepare the ground. Make sure you cough and shiver the day before so everyone will think: “Right enough, he/she didn’t seem/wasn’t looking well yesterday,” as opposed to “That came on very suddenly.”

• It’s all very well to sound a bit groggy, but avoid hamming it up too much. A hoarse voice is acceptable, but moaning and groaning, or making retching noises is totally over the top.

• Make frequent references to your diarrhoea, or, if you are a woman, to “female problems” – there’s nothing more likely to deter unwanted visits from workmates or detailed interrogation from your boss.

• Keep your excuses simple. Going into a detailed explanation as to how exactly you contracted your vomiting bug will only make your boss suspicious and might trip you up in the long run.

• Stay off social network sites and away from TV cameras. The last thing you want your boss to see is a sparkling account of how you fooled him or your face at a concert when you should be in bed with a damp cloth over your head.