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Does 'National Sickie Day' trivialise employee wellbeing?

National Sickie Day, which falls on Monday 4 February, is supposedly the day staff are most likely to pretend they're ill for a day off. 

This factoid (which absenteeism figures suggest is not actually true) is based on a few things:

  • Colds are rife during January and February.
  • The post-Christmas anticlimax gets people down.
  • Pressure of the new year causes work-related stress to mount.
  • The US Super Bowl, which is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, airs on Sunday 3 February. A few too many beers may be the cause of Monday morning's headache.
  • It's the first weekend after payday for many, inspiring lots of us to over-indulge at the pub.

While National Sickie Day is allegedly a tongue-in-cheek dig at the nation's duvet-loving workforce, it's not an entirely welcome addition to the calendar for some people.

Jamie Lawrence, editor of HRZone, is one such person. He writes in a blog post that: "to say that today is the day people are most likely to pull a sickie is crude and dangerous".

His supporting argument is that National Sickie Day creates a stigma around calling in sick. It plants suspicion in people's minds and undermines the authenticity of absenteeism. He warns that it's dangerous to compartmentalise reasons for absence into 'good' and 'bad' categories because we are all different: "wellbeing is a totally individual concept."

While being admitted to hospital may be considered a 'good' reason to take time off, not feeling like getting out of bed may be considered a 'bad' reason. But not wanting to get out of bed is a common symptom of depression - which as we know, can become a serious and costly problem when left unmanaged. Low moods may also be compounded if the sufferer feels they have to make up a more socially acceptable ailment. They may be afraid of the backlash and judgement from colleagues, and what it means for their career.

Are we really a nation of skivers?

Last year the number of sick days UK employees took dropped to its lowest rate in 25 years. Workers took an average of 4.1 sick days each, compared to 7.2 in 1999. It could be because people are taking better care of themselves - after all, it's trendy now to exercise and eat well.

But there could also be a darker reason for this drop in sick leave. In many organisations there is a stigma about taking time off, which often stems from a culture of presenteeism - employees turning up and staying late (even when ill) but not necessarily being productive. Are work demands and pressures preventing us from taking down-time when we need it?

Creating a supportive culture

Faking sickness for non-health-related matters like holidays and celebrations is of course a serious matter. Sick leave costs the UK economy around £29 billion a year. Improving the health and happiness of staff to lower absenteeism is often - and rightly so, high on organisations' agendas. However, trying to catch staff out is not necessarily the best way of going about it.

It is important to cultivate a caring, supportive culture in which staff feel able to take care of their health and wellbeing needs without jeopardising their careers or reputations.

If a lot of staff are repeatedly going off sick, it might be time to ask: why is everybody so disengaged? What can we do to boost motivation and loyalty? How do we make sure everybody is getting what they expected from their roles? As we know, small pressures mount up. Consider:

Environment - Are staff comfortable? Being overlooked, working in noisy conditions, insufficient lighting and ineffective or poorly set up equipment can all impact a person's engagement levels.

Enrichment - Is there enough to keep staff stimulated beyond their roles? Are there quiet areas, break rooms, places to walk and stretch? Is there a good social scene with activities outside of work?

Training - Are staff being given the skills and tools to be as productive and healthy as they can be? E-learning training in subjects like stress awareness and DSE set-up can help manage work-related physical and mental health issues.

Flexibility - Do staff have the flexibility to maintain a good work-life balance? Agile working places emphasis on output - the quality of work achieved as opposed to the methods used to achieve it (i.e. time and location). Giving staff flexibility to change their working times and places can help take the pressure off other areas of life, such as taking children to school, or finding time for exercise.

This National Sickie Day, let's take the chance to consider our workplace culture and change the 'sickie' mindset for good. Sometimes life can run us down, and ignoring what our bodies are trying to tell us in order to avoid people thinking we're pulling a sickie is only going to result in worse health further down the line.

Take time to recuperate when needed, but if you find yourself repeatedly avoiding work under the pretence of being ill, perhaps it's time to consider what's stopping you from enjoying your work, and - if there is no solution, whether you may be better suited to a different job or career path.