Fast track: Will this advert make you bunk off work?

A promotional campaign is giving employers a headache.
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TAKE A LOOK at this advertisement and consider your response. Are you raring to rush out and buy Karrimor's outdoor clothing and equipment? Does it make you daydream about a well deserved winter holiday? Or does it - as increasing numbers of irate employers are claiming - give you the impression that it is fine to take a "sickie" from work, because lots of people do it?

Karrimor's ad is part of a national campaign, seen on hoardings, on buses and trains and in newspapers, which, according to Railtrack's deputy human resources director Paul Radley, is "irresponsible". He adds: "We have taken great strides in decreasing levels of absenteeism among our staff since the late Eighties, with the result that they are more responsible than ever. In the past five years, for instance, we have reduced sickness from an average of 8.3 days a year per person to 6.5 days. Messages like Karrimor's aren't exactly going to help. I can understand that it's meant to be a joke, but will everybody?"

Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, agrees. She has branded the advertisement - which has already generated at least one complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority - "outrageous". "It gives all the wrong signals," she says. "It's encouraging people to break their contracts and be disloyal."

According to the latest survey by the CBI, absenteeism last year alone cost this country pounds 11bn, with an average of 8.4 days lost per employee. "While true illness was the main reason why respondents took time off, there were other incentives, such as family or home responsibilities, unauthorised holidays and lack of commitment," claims a spokesperson.

Although absenteeism is not as prevalent as it was a decade ago, it is usually the younger end of the workforce who, fairly or not, come in for criticism: graduates are often perceived as being most likely to phone in sick unnecessarily, perhaps because in the early years of a job they carry little responsibility. And since the Karrimor advertisement is largely aimed at young people, some business analysts believe that it could cause graduates the most aggravation of all. Should employers see the poster, their reaction - goes the argument - will be: "I must watch out for these young recruits taking leave when they're not really sick." The emergence of the "mass sickie" as a tool in industrial disputes has not helped the profile of graduates; last year's strike by British Airways cabin crew, for example, involved mainly young staff.

But, claims Angela Edward, policy adviser for the Institute of Personnel and Development, this story - and the Karrimor advertisement - could indirectly help conscientious graduates in the long run. (Those taking advantage of slack employers, beware.) "It means the profile of absenteeism is raised, which, in turn, is likely to make more employers improve their policies on it. For recruits who are genuinely ill, that will mean proper recognition and understanding. For those who aren't, it will mean enquiries made into why they're taking so much time off, so that the appropriate improvements can be made."

Indeed, a study of six major companies earlier this year by Incomes Data Services identified a range of factors that can influence absence levels, including pay, training and development, opportunities and communications. "Those employers who make an effort to better these areas will notice a boost in staff morale and a consequent decrease in absenteeism," stresses Debra Allcock, head of campaigns at the Industrial Society.

Not surprisingly, the study concluded that employees are happy to go to work when they feel useful, rather than used. "Introducing flexibility in working time arrangements and improving the amount of annual leave can help," says Allcock. "This is particularly relevant to graduates because employers so often fail to remember the shock of leaving university, where there are many weeks' holiday a year, to a business environment where there are sometimes fewer than three."

The most effective ways for employers to achieve such results is by accurate recording and analysis of absence patterns, strict notification procedures, and return-to-work interviews, says Edward. "It may sound as though this decreases absenteeism wholly through fear, but it is in fact in employees' interests, for it helps their superiors to get to the root of any absenteeism problem in the quickest way. In addition, it can reveal when a member of staff is suffering from something like stress or repetitive stress injury, in which case they can take advantage of the occupational health schemes and counselling services so prevalent in today's companies."

In any case, all the business analysts agree that the perception of the graduate as being more likely than others to lie to employers about illness is no more than a myth. "Measures to stamp out absenteeism which may come as a result of the Karrimor advert can highlight this," claims Edward.

David Appleton, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, adds: "In my experience, graduates want to make a career for themselves and are therefore less likely than most to take a blase attitude to taking time off. It would be worth employers' interests to realise this."

Similarly, the assumption that women take more time off sick than men may be dispersed by this raising of the profile, says Allcock. "I am amazed at the number of people who think women with children are far quicker than men to take time off, and swap jobs all the time. In reality, the tendency is for single men without any responsibilities to do so. After all, if you find an employer who is supportive to you as a woman with a family to support, you are much more likely to be loyal, whereas single men don't have such concerns." No surprises, then, that during last summer's World Cup it is estimated that one in three men took time off work to watch football.

In any case, claims Andrew Evans, director of Arts Psychology Consultants, even if the Karrimor advertisement cannot achieve all this, it is worth remembering that the relationship between ads and their audience is seldom straightforward.

"For employers to believe that a person will see the advert's caption, `Phone in sick' and then follow those instructions is, to me, naive," he says. "There is an increasing tendency, in fact, for captions not to be literal and, in many cases, to mean exactly the opposite of what they say."