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Friday, 15 October, 1999, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
Serial skiving: What's your excuse?

The time-honoured practice of taking a sickie may have been dealt a fatal blow.

In an attempt to step up efficiency, a London council says it is serving notice on "serial skivers" by requiring them to pay for their time off.

The idea is bound to catch the eye of other employers. Absenteeism is estimated to have cost British business more than 10bn last year.

The Confederation of British Industry estimates 200 million days were lost through sick leave in 1998 - an average of 8.5 per employee.

And while the majority of this would have been down to genuine illness, certainly not everyone was playing fair.

Police and prison wardens take the most sick days
The problem is most acute in the public sector, where workers on average take an extra 1.7 days a year compared with their commercial counterparts.

Police officers and prison wardens top the list with an average of 12 annual sick days per employee, according to government figures.

Next come NHS employees, who average 9.9 days, and council staff, with 9.2.

Recent studies found that 2,000 prison officers call in sick every day - enough to staff seven medium-sized jails.

In the private sector, workers take an average of 7.5 days sick leave a year.

The figures are clearly unacceptable to bosses, who see sickies as a major obstacle to a more efficient working culture.

Clamp down

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has pledged to cut public-sector absenteeism by a third within five years. Meanwhile, Wandsworth Borough Council is so anxious to stamp out the problem, it wants staff to pay back a day's salary, work extra hours or forfeit annual leave.

Ever felt like taking a 'duvet day'?
But many workers have come to treat skulking as an accepted part of working practice.

Last year thousands of England and Scotland fans were thought to have bunked off work in a bid to watch their teams in the World Cup.

The Sun newspaper even printed a list of amusing excuses to fool the boss. And the outdoor clothing company Karrimor got a rap on the knuckles from the Institute of Directors when it ran the campaign slogan "Phone in Sick".

The sickie has even been touted as a potential weapon for civil unrest. A group of armchair revolutionaries called Decadent Action called for a World Sick Day on 6 April last year, in an effort to bring down capitalism

Culture can grow

Angela Baron, of the Institute of Personnel and Development, says a culture of taking sickies can grow in a company.

But she is scornful of Wandsworth's clamp down, since genuinely ill people are bound to get caught up in the system. She also frowns upon rewarding employees for 100% attendance, since this too penalises the poorly.

A better approach would be to take aside a suspected serial skiver and show concern about their health.

Excuses, excuses

"You find that when companies start taking an interest in absenteeism the sickies start to drop off," she says.

When it comes to excuses, slackers tend to be fairly uninspired. Back pain, sore throat, colds, flu, tooth ache and migraine, are the standard fare, says Ms Baron.

And sometimes they even lie to themselves.

"People tend to rationalise it in their head. They will think 'I worked hard last week', or 'I was in work with a cold last week, so I'll take today off'."

Perhaps the best solution for Wandsworth and other employers would be to follow in the steps of publishers Cabal Communications. It grants each worker four mental health days, or "duvet days", a year.

Chief executive Sally O'Sullivan explains: "If you wake up one morning and you absolutely cannot get into work for some reason, you do not have to ring up and pretend your great aunt has died, you say you are having a mental health day."

Trusting the employee to be responsible works, she says.

"I've never known anyone need to take a sickie."

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22 Sep 99 | Talking Point
Should 'serial skivers' be penalised?
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