Yesterday was apparently National Sickie Day. Naturally, I was at work, so I didn’t get to read the papers or watch/listen to the news till I got home (the national broadcasting services having decided announcing this on the morning news would obviously have been dangerously suggestive), although I did notice that today is Groundhog Day. (Radio 4 decided it was safe to mention that, although it got a little sidetracked in climate change.) When I did finally make it as far as yesterday’s news, I was pleasantly surprised to see I wasn’t the only one who saw some kind of possible connection.

None other than Libby Purves (a one time reporter/presenter for the Today programme – what goes around comes around, like a virus … or a groundhog) fought off all that ailed her long enough to write an article for The Times, Are you reading this at work? If so, well done. It’s always going to be a contentious issue – as the commentary around the Perada case last year showed (and we commented on in an earlier post, Hawks, Doves and Owls – HR, the law, and the psychological contract ).

Some people skive sometimes, and there seems little point denying it. Peter Mooney of ELAS (who Libby cites) comments annually, with impressive tallies of estimated costs to business, estimated percentage rates of fraudulence and so on. News being news, each year brings an angle: we are now texting in our messages, apparently, as this saves us faking a cough and remembering to sound ill, and it spares us from the need to respond to questions. (Oddly, no-one seems to comment that this is another example of technology being a double-edged sword for business: we can be texted 24 hours a day and expected to respond, but text in sick and we’re under immediate suspicion for managing to retain the feeble use of a finger or two: is there a psychologist in the house?)

An employee’s illness, even genuine, is an annoying inconvenience for the business: others have to cover, or a task can’t be completed, or diaries have to be reshuffled. Where the ill person isn’t a freelance worker, they also get sick pay. It’s obviously important to be watchful that people aren’t ‘swinging the lead’, although it’s obviously similarly important to make sure that support is offered where they may be a genuine problem that can be overcome by referral to doctors or other specialists. (There’s an interesting article at Real Business – Why your staff don’t like Mondays – that became more interesting when we Googled the author’s name, but we’ll leave that to you.)

But it had obviously struck Ms Purves – and me – that while there are serious financial implications (whether they amount to fraud or not), we might be looking at only one side of the coin. Essentially, people fake ill health to take a day off because they don’t want to come to work, or as her article expressed it:

I suppose the ideal employee is a tough old bird with no dependants and a powerful sense of indispensability.

That last word is the key. It isn’t all about idleness or hangovers. It’s about what work means to you. If you genuinely believe yourself to be useful, your role important and your boss and colleagues respectful, then you’re never going to throw a sickie. Unease, self-disgust and worry about the office outweigh minor fatigue or depression.

Senior managers in the private sector famously soldier on even when they really shouldn’t, but even junior staff sometimes proudly force themselves in through snow, rail strikes and sniffles. If bosses have any sense, they show gratitude. That probably happens more in small companies and tight teams, and a lot less in vast call centres, factories and dysfunctional offices.”

This is surely an aspect of engagement, of good management and inspiring leadership. If we’re deeply aware that it matters to others that we struggle in despite temptation, we’re more likely to do so. (As a side note, it was also interesting to reflect on employment in a wide range of organisations and remember those who got infectious people out of the office ‘before everyone else goes down with it’ and those who simply made acid remarks about ‘using your lunch break to buy something to take for that’: think for a moment about which approach does more for the short-term productivity of the team.) If it’s happening significantly in your office – the Real Business article suggests anything above 3% should cause concerns – then it’s understandable that you might start questioning anyone who texts in sick (even those who are genuinely ill: let’s not forget that workforces are merely mortal, and that reacting in a way that signals a withdrawal of trust is quite possibly going to have as much impact on productivity as real or faked ill health).

A high number of minor complaints might also be telling a manager something about the office climate, culture and environment. Low morale affects productivity too, and is probably a major factor in absenteeism: as the Work Foundation recently reported in their empirical study Exceeding Expectations, outstanding leaders monitor the temperature of their team, and are acutely mindful of climate, mood and impact of their own actions and others on the individuals working for them. They also apply the spirit of the law rather than the letter: for them, a ‘return to work’ interview really is an opportunity for dialogue, which includes an opportunity to discover if their own impact or behaviour may be the cause of a symptom. And where it appears they may have made a mistake, they acknowledge it and work for a better scenario to evolve.

To quote from the report:

Outstanding leadership means that everyone is committed and connected to the long-term goals of the organisation. Outstanding leaders appreciate this and work hard on issues such as team spirit, shared decision making, collaborative working and a strong bond within and between teams. Our outstanding leaders were acutely aware of the importance of creating a climate of high performance with a sense of belonging.”

Outstanding leaders also promote and strive to develop confidence. They don’t give their staff just any old Tom, Dick or Harry: they give them a fillip. Faced with a wet, grey winter’s morning, they encourage working atmospheres and climates that are more tempting than staying under the duvet.

I mentioned the groundhogs earlier, as it seems to me that the moral of the Groundhog Day film – that until we recognise our own shortcomings and address them, we’re going to face the same bleak old day over and over – isn’t entirely without application here. It’s not impossible that some managers and leaders, far from being the groundhog, are being the winter (and the prospect of six more weeks of it) that sends us scuttling back to our burrows unless we’re prodded out of them with procedural sticks. (The film’s ‘change the record’ message is broadly applicable: there’s a great post by Steve Popp at CultureMap that ties it to partisanship in American politics – another stalemate scenario that could benefit from fresh thinking.)

Procedures, regulations and disciplinary frameworks all have their place (and the aforementioned Peter Mooney provides comprehensive guidance here), but their role is to address symptoms. Looking at managerial and leader behaviour in terms of its impact on morale and motivation has a place to play in addressing absenteeism too. An outstanding leader is not just an inspiration to their staff – they’re a tonic too. Apply frequently and consistently for optimum results.

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