The SME workers that cried wolf: The impact of pulling a sickie

The cost of employees pulling an infamous sickie can be crippling for SMEs. But employers share the blame too, says breatheHR's Jonathan Richards.

Ever pulled a ‘sickie’? I’m sure the majority of us have – whether it’s from a sore head after overdoing it the night before or simply being too tired to get out of bed due to feeling overworked. However, it’s high time we were all a bit more honest in the workplace, especially with our managers.  

We surveyed 1,500 British SME workers and business owners this year and discovered seemingly harmless ‘sickies’ are totalling up to a whopping £900 million. Nothing short of an absence epidemic.

At a time when the government is attempting to decipher the ‘productivity puzzle’, over two million people are calling in sick when they are in fact not. Imagine if that number was halved, what uptick in economic performance would that deliver to the UK economy and SMEs?

We don’t have a crystal ball and to make sweeping statements would be unwise, but the point nonetheless is that sickness is kicking SMEs where it hurts – in their P&L. Arguably, if they don’t have the processes and systems in place to track and manage absence appropriately, they risk leaving themselves exposed.

It’s also directly impacting the workforce morale. Although your line manager might not have clocked that you’re bunking off – your co-workers will likely know if you’re genuinely ill or not – partly thanks to social media and the need to share our lives online.

And like the bored boy in Aesop’s classic fable, in the long-run, it will come at a cost. And although the title of this piece focuses on employees – it’s the employers that are to blame also.

Honesty is the best policy

Instead of the lies and secrets, business owners should embrace and foster a new culture. A culture where employees can be upfront and transparent with line managers on the real reason why they might not want to come into work. This could be due to feeling burnt out or to avoid a stressful situation a work. In fact, according to our recent research, one in five (19 per cent) SME workers confessed they’ve faked an illness to get out of a work situation.

Drilling down into the numbers we found that men were more likely to revert to throwing a sickie to avoid a situation at work than women (22% and 15% respectively) as were those aged 35 – 54 who are at the height of their career.

This is extremely concerning and is a strong indication that a large number of UK workers don’t feel that the right lines of support and/or communication are in place to enable them to flag that they are stressed, overwhelmed or unhappy.

So how can you create a transparent culture to avoid one in seven of your SME workforce pulling sickies each year? Business owners and managers can follow what our teachers drilled into us at school – “lead by example!” There is no point encouraging employees to be more honest if the senior team isn’t doing anything on their end. Additionally, one simple – yet very effective – way of improving communication with your staff is perching at the end of their desk and asking them: “how are you?” It’s easy to fire a flippant email to employees but another thing to chat face-to-face and build rapport with them.

Stress manifests itself in different ways for different people, but long-term it can have a serious impact on an individual’s health unless they are given the help they need. This can also lead to prolonged absence from work. Therefore, it’s important that SMEs tackle this issue head on

Changing culture

Our findings also raised important questions about culture. When a company is set up, it strives to create a culture in which employees can thrive. Many pride themselves on their open culture and see it as a cornerstone of their staff recruitment and retention policies. Yet our research indicates that without the correct management and support, staff dissatisfaction can manifest itself in sickness absence.

What is perceived to be a harmless sickie is costing SMEs in terms of work days as well as the wider business economy. What is more concerning is that with no way of managing or generating insights into absence, SMEs can’t understand them or correlate trends that point to employees, for example, avoiding meetings. They’re charging ahead without addressing the root cause of the problem.

As a small business with a small team, you arguably have no excuse. Alongside being smaller comes being closer as a team and communicating to your employees regularly. Yet, size can be both a boon and a burden, often having a detrimental effect on your lines of communication as it can be overlooked. However, with the right support tools in place, SMEs can reduce business admin and free up more time to create a culture where your workforce crying wolf becomes a thing of the past.

Jonathan Richards is the CEO at provider of HR software for SMEs breatheHR. For more insight, download the ‘Sick Report’

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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