Sick? You will be when you ring the office

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The Independent Online

Thinking of taking a "sickie" though you're not really sick at all? Think again. More companies than ever are adopting controversial measures to ensure their staff come to work. What's more, they appear to be having an effect. New research by the CBI reveals that absenteeism levels are now 7.8 days a year - down by almost a full day since last year.

Thinking of taking a "sickie" though you're not really sick at all? Think again. More companies than ever are adopting controversial measures to ensure their staff come to work. What's more, they appear to be having an effect. New research by the CBI reveals that absenteeism levels are now 7.8 days a year - down by almost a full day since last year.

"Companies have had no choice," says a spokesperson for the CBI. "Absenteeism can cost a company 3 per cent of its payroll - a national total of more than £10bn a year. In fact, over the past decade, absenteeism has become one of the biggest problems facing the British workplace."

One study by Gee Publishing earlier this year found that 40 per cent of companies had experienced rising absence levels over the previous three years, and one in five said that absenteeism was a significant problem. 'The fact that we're finally witnessing a turnaround is a cause for celebration," says the CBI spokesperson.

Among the latest "anti-sick strategies" is paying staff not to be ill. "Workers with a full attendance during the year now receive a £100 bonus," explains Deirdre Devereux, administration services manager for Marsden Building Society, who claims the figure is reviewed annually and the results have been highly successful. "Because there are only 200 staff, absence was having a major impact on day-to-day business," she says.

Tesco introduced a similar scheme several years ago. "In some stores, absence levels had reached 11 per cent," says a spokesperson. "We had to do something to motivate staff, so we offered bonuses before they were tempted to take time off."

Other organisations have started providing a figure for the number of "acceptable" days' absence.

Malcolm Smyth, a business psychologist specialising in absenteeism, claims this is particularly effective. "It sounds Dickensian," he admits. "You can imagine staff coughing away at their manager's desk pleading 'I know I've reached my quota of flu days but can't you put this down as a virus or something?' But in reality it is a simple way of monitoring patterns of time off. If, say, this is your sixth Monday off in three months, your manager has a right to ask questions.'

Surveys consistently show that the most common day for "sickies" is Monday, probably following an over-active weekend. This comes as no surprise to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). "Our research shows that just over a third of all sickness absence has nothing to do with genuine ill health," says Diane Sinclair, adviser in employment relations.

Younger staff have the worst reputation when it comes to attendance, according to the latest research from the Department for Education and Employment. Such absences, claims Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, explain why there was such controversy over Karrimor's national advertising campaign for outdoor clothing and equipment which showed people relaxing in a dramatic mountain setting with the caption "phone in sick".

"It was outrageous," says Ms Lea. "It encouraged young employees to break their employment contracts and pretend to be ill."

But Dr Martyn Dyer-Smith, principal psychologist at the University of Northumbria, and a specialist in absenteeism, is not convinced that today's remedial methods are the solution. He says: "Monitoring does nothing more than dehumanise the workforce, and the policies that companies put in place seem to be based on fear and bribery which will, in the end, decrease loyalty and productivity rather than increase it."

Instead, he suggests, employers must try to find the root of the problem. In fact, Tesco has found that its efforts to understand why people take time off have cut absence rates by half in some stores. "Anyone who phones in sick is now put through to someone trained in managing absence rather than the colleague who happens to answer the call," says human resources policy manager Keith Luxon. 'Their aim is to find out - in a caring way - why the employee isn't in work and if there is anything we can do to prevent it happening again."

Andrew Carvell, a business psychologist, adds that some companies need to go further still by assessing the culture of the organisation.

Consider, he says, the fact that absence rates in the public sector far outweigh those in the private sector. Studies show the reason could be that employees perceive the former as not being "owned" by anyone and so do not feel they are "letting anyone down" by taking extra days off.

The CIPD claims that stress counselling, employee assistance programmes and also flexible working practices, are all proven ways to reduce absenteeism in the long term. "Employees who are not really sick, but take time off as sick, may be under unreasonable pressure," says Ms Sinclair.

The PR consultancy Text 100 believes it has found the most innovative solution. Its "duvet days" - two extra days off a year for employees who occasionally just can't bring themselves to crawl out of bed - has an almost 100 per cent take-up rate. "We respect employees' need to have those added sickies and they respect us for it. Everyone's happy," said a spokesman.

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