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27th February 2015

Swinging the lead?

Retro Telephone.Apparently the first Monday in February is ‘National Sickie Day’. This phenomenon is thought to be caused by a combination of cold damp weather and the post Christmas blues. Up to 375,000 workers were expected to call in sick on that day, according to research from the Employment Law Advisory Services (ELAS).

For anyone out there who manages people services, you will recall those times when you got that call from an employee and you couldn’t help yourself in thinking they were skiving. Perhaps it was the predictability of it, or the really croaky way they explained themselves. Perhaps it was the fact it was the Friday before a long weekend on, or the Monday after a short weekend off.

Predictable swings

A couple of years ago, I undertook a bit of local research into the sickness absence patterns of our staff team. I reviewed all episodes of sickness absence, identifying the long-term absences, the one-day-off episodes and the days they occurred. By and large, the scattering of results suggested that the vast majority of sickness was likely to be genuine. However, a couple of staff seemed especially adept at timing their sickness to fall exactly mid-way between their booked annual leave, artfully missing the trigger points for an electronic warning on the HR system. One chap had managed to swing a fortnight off every other month, due to careful positioning of holiday and sickie. If he had only put that much effort into doing his job when he was around, he’d still be working for me now.

Over the course of the year, our sickness absence has very definite and predictable swings. As a children’s services provider attached to a school, we see the regular effects of a bug or two every winter; usually the kids get sick, then the staff fall over a week later. Good old D and V can go through the service like a dose of salts (pardon the pun) and our 48 hours symptom free before returning to duty rule makes this a favourite reason for calling in sick amongst the cognoscenti. ‘Upset tummy’ is a very VERY common reason for absence. Just saying.

Healthy cynicism

I have to admit to being cynic-in-chief when it comes to sickness absence. Having been fortunate enough to have the constitution of an ox and a real passion for the job, my sickness record is pretty unblemished. This makes me both smug and critical, a deadly combination. Over the years I have mellowed a little; I used to sneer at anyone purporting to have ‘a bad back’ for example, but since an unfortunate incident with a Land Rover and a pony trailer, I have reviewed my opinion of this particular ailment. Mind you, I do still question each episode.

One of my most beleaguered teams has endured serial short staffing due to a range of sickness/maternity/suspension/vacancy issues. This team has had to pull numerous extra duties and work with some seriously woeful agency cover over the last few months and these factors have resulted in them becoming even more judgmental and sceptical than I. This scepticism has had the unfortunate consequence of ‘Social Media Outing’ of people absent from work.

By this, I mean the collective derision poured on those unfortunates who have dared to post on Facebook or Twitter during periods of absence from work. This can be in the form of idle gossip in the workplace, but also has manifested itself in pointed and scathing posts on said social media. This in turn has escalated into accusations of bullying, which brings about a whole new world of hassle.

It’s a tough call to decide whether being too ill to work suggests you ought not be fit enough to sit at your laptop and shoot the breeze about kittens and cupcake recipes. I’m not sure that as a manager I have the right to judge. Indeed, for some people whose illness is of the long term and less acute variety, social media can be a replacement for the camaraderie of the workplace. However, when one has just got in from a double shift with twice the workload, being presented with a slew of cheery chatty postings from the person whose work you were just doing can be a bit galling.

Snooping around

As an employer, when is it OK to use social media evidence as a reason to question the validity of someone’s sickness claim? Well, it is acceptable practice to check up on staff that you think are not genuinely ill. Recent cases have included private detectives or CCTV being used, but monitoring Facebook use was the basis of a 2009 case of a Swiss woman who was fired when she was found to be online despite having gone home sick with migraine.

Of course, as I said before, being ill does not necessarily preclude you from being able to tweet or post. Yet if the tweeting or posting reveals that during your absence for severe joint pain you were up Snowdon with the lads from the pub, or on a hen weekend in Bratislava… Once you put the information in the public domain, it's hard to accuse your employer of snooping.


One girl who was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing, contrived a ‘stress-related illness‘, thus managing to drag the process out for many months; she was not fit to attend a hearing, she contested. Her line manager was frustrated and angry – she was having to back fill the post and the matter was not being concluded to anyone’s satisfaction. Then one morning she came to see me in a state of elation. The previous evening, another colleague had pointed out that the employee in question was gleefully posting her recent weekend pub crawl activity, complete with photographs and gory detail. Not only that, but a quick trawl of her Facebook activity revealed a social life that would eclipse that of Kanye and Kim.

Our risk-averse HR department would not let us use this evidence to bring the hearing forward and force her to attend, but we found another way. One or two well-placed comments from her team leader on the message boards, and she realised she was rumbled. Within a few weeks she was on her way out, un-compensated and without a hope of a reference.

I don’t know whether there is a moral here or a caution to those who are tempted to feign illness to get some time off work. It has always been a factor and will continue to be a temptation, no matter how smart we get at detecting it. I suppose the only hope we have is that collective approbation and peer pressure are sufficient deterrents to those who forget to remember they are unfit for duty!

Ginny Tyler – QCS Learning Disability Expert Contributor

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