By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine
Bosses who suspect absent employees of skiving have a new weapon - teams of nurses to check just how ill they are. Will this put an end to malingering staff throwing sickies?
Temptation to bunk off can be strong
As summer arrives, so too does another reason for telling work you're a bit poorly - the appealing prospect of lying about in the sun.
But even virtuoso "sick-day" performers could soon find their best husky voice or pitiful moan is no longer enough to earn a break from the boss's shackles.
Expert sickie detection is now available to firms in the form of a panel of nurses who quiz absent employees about their symptoms.
It's a service intended to help the genuinely ill get back to full health - and the office - as quickly as possible, while exposing those with nothing worse than a dose of laziness.
The prospect of cutting down on absenteeism is one which appeals to companies for good reason. A new survey suggests the average worker takes nine sick days a year, at a cost of £588 to their employers.
But the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) report also highlights growing levels of stress - suggesting that it may often be over-demanding firms and not malingering workers who are to blame for lost days.
"As the weather improves, there's a notable increase in absenteeism," says Alan Aldridge, managing director of Active Health Partners, the company behind the team of nurses.
For every degree Fahrenheit that the temperature rises above average, at least 2,000 more people take the day off work, the consultancy suggests.
While the overcast skies of recent days may not suggest the problem is a pressing one, early June saw temperatures rise to such an extent that at least 22,000 extra people phoned in sick.
Bosses taking the calls usually have to rely on their instincts to judge whether the plea is genuine, and often err on the side of caution.
But by getting nurses to screen the calls instead, those who are not actually ill are less likely to get away with an un-deserved day off, says Mr Aldridge.
He stresses that most callers really are sick, with nurses asking them in detail about their symptoms before offering advice on how to get well - whether that's by resting, seeing a doctor, or looking at work-related problems such as RSI.
The company does not get involved in dealing with those workers helping themselves to extra time off, but says it can highlight where there may be a problem
"A helpful by-product of the service is the nurse has to ask a lot of questions, which means that if a person is not genuinely ill, it can get quite uncomfortable for them," says Mr Aldridge.
The company says similar services in the US have cut unnecessary absenteeism from an average 12 days per claim to six.
Active Health Partners estimates that three out of 10 sick days are not related to genuine ill health. Other surveys are more conservative, but still suggest that companies have a problem.
"Mucus troopers" - people who soldier on - are a problem too
Three out of 10 UK companies believe that more than a fifth of absenteeism is the result of workers throwing a "sickie", says Ben Wilmott, author of the CIPD report, to be published on Wednesday.
"The majority are for time off here and there on a Monday or a nice sunny day," he says.
A recent survey by the CBI and insurance firm AXA said the number of sick days taken by UK workers rose to 176 million last year, at a cost to business of £11.6bn.
The 500 firms questioned believed 25 million days were lost to feigned sickness, prompting CBI deputy director John Cridland to warn: "Unwarranted long weekends and staff pulling sickies are taking their toll on the UK's ability to absorb the enormous cost of absence."
Further credence was given to the claims when Norwich Union Health Care announced that doctors considered nine million sick note requests a year either invalid or questionable.
While such information might be used to suggest the average British worker is work-shy, the impression is a false one not helped by the arrival of Active Health Partners' nurses, says the TUC.
Using the team to check-up on workers is "a kind of snooping" says TUC health and safety policy officer Tom Mellish, and could antagonise the employee-employer relationship.
The body's study on "mucus troopers", those people who come in to work even when they have a cold, suggests as many as seven out of 10 people would rather soldier on when they are sick than let their colleagues down.
The vast majority of employees taking days off do so for good reasons, it believes.
"People are either being made genuinely sick by work, perhaps by the symptoms of stress, or they feel they need a break from it because they haven't got enough scope in their leave," says Mr Mellish.
The TUC is also against "willy-nilly" reasons for absence, but says the key to tackling the problem is for proper monitoring of leave.
"The best way of dealing with these issues is for there to be a dialogue between employees and their staff."
Perhaps, as the saying goes, it's good to talk.