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Thursday, 28 June, 2001, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
The art of the 'sickie'

One in three "sick" days taken by UK workers has nothing to do with illness. Why is our sickie culture still in such rude health?

By taking a prolonged period of sick leave from his Virgin Radio breakfast show, only to be then spotted out and about, DJ Chris Evans has aroused suspicions he has been pulling a "sickie".

Evans, it should be said, denies this and says he has been genuinely ill. Virgin Radio decided a termination of his contract would be the best medicine.

Chris Evans
Chris Evans: "I've been ill"
Sickies, the practice of feigning illness to avoid work, are endemic in companies across the UK. Of the 192 million sick days taken last year, a third were not linked to ill health says the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

With this absenteeism costing the UK as much as 4bn a year, bosses not surprisingly take news that an employee has "one of those 24-hour bug things" with a pinch of salt.

They are particularly affronted by mystery illnesses which strike during the black spot months of June (sunbathing) and December (Christmas shopping and post-office party recovery), a Management Today survey found.

In the face of such managerial cynicism a whole canon of water cooler lore has grown up to protect poorly employees against accusations of chucking a sickie.

The phone call: Perhaps fearing the boss has a secret lie detector hooked up to the phone, ringing in sick has become an exercise in amateur dramatics for some.

John Lennon
To cough or not to cough
Many people fear they don't sound sufficiently ill, prompting them to emit the odd cough or sniffle - even if they are actually suffering a stomach upset or eye infection.

Making the call with your head hanging off the bed or with tissue-stuffed nostrils have also been recommended as ways to make your voice sound suitably pained and blocked up.

Opinion is divided as to whether the whole charade can be successfully avoided by getting someone else to make the call. Will it signal you're too sick to even dial, or that you're a coward as well as a shirker?

The day off: Common sense dictates that heading off to the park or pub as soon as you've replaced the receiver is the fastest route to a P45.

Sunbed
Don't return from your sickbed with a tan
If you must run the risk of meeting a manager on the street, try not to deviate too far off the straightest line from your bed to your local doctor or chemist.

Sunblock is also commonly prescribed for such journeys - returning to work with a suntan is the sickie badge of shame.

The return: When sheepishly returning to the office, most people suffer the "enjoy your sickie" taunts from co-workers. However, it's the boss who has to be kept sweet.

Offering too many details about your illness is perhaps as bad as offering only a scant explanation for your absence.

A convoluted story about your symptoms, especially if it doesn't tally exactly with your phone call, may plant the doubt that you "doth protest too much".


So what should bosses do to stamp out sickies?

Creating a work environment where employees soldier through illness out of fear is generally regarded as counterproductive.

The Young Ones
"It's a sort of dull, stabbing, stomachy, head pain"
Workers dogged by genuine, if minor, ailments are likely to make more mistakes, jeopardise their long-term health, and risk infecting colleagues if they keep their runny noses to the grindstone.

Weeding out those who just want a rogue day off can be achieved with a managerial carrot, rather than a stick.

Homing: Sickies often coincide with some domestic crisis befalling an employee. By allowing a portion of the working day to be devoted to household matters, employees may not feel the need to take sickies.

Flexitime: With married couples said to be particularly prone to taking sickies, moves to insist work schedules take family duties into account are gaining momentum.

The government is even pushing for laws to give working parents the opportunity of fine-tuning their hours.

Duvet days: Sometimes the sickie urge is prompted by a desire to do absolutely nothing. Such indolent absenteeism should be written off as a goodwill "duvet day", says work stress expert Cary Cooper.

Tony Blair with baby son Leo
"Sorry I'm late, the babysitter let us down"
Though duvet days have been called "bonkers" by Ruth Lea of Institute of Directors, a number of small companies have given workers a few days to take off at short notice as they require.

Managing absence: Supermarket chain Tesco has decided to tackle sickies head on. Those calling in sick are put through to a designated manager, rather than a co-worker or a line manager.

When the worker returns they must attend an interview. If the absence was due to something other than illness, they are given the option to trade off the missed time against their holiday entitlement or accumulated overtime.

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See also:

28 Jun 01 | Showbiz
Virgin axes DJ Evans
03 Jan 01 | e-cyclopedia
Duvet days: A snooze button for life
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