Monday, 16 August 2010

“Throw a sickie”: How to tackle and curb the phenomenon of fictitious sickness?

“Throw a sickie” is an informal expression used by employees to mean that they won’t go to work by reason of being ill, whereas they are actually not.
Many organizations are “victims” of this phenomenon whose frequency is as often as not influenced by exogenous factors. The unfolding of some important sports events, like the World Cup and the Olympic Games as well as particularly adverse weather conditions, as heavy snowfalls, can for instance account for the incidence of the “throw a sickie” occurrence to drastically increase; whereas other events, like economic and financial downturns and the circumstance an employer might have unveiled the plan to make a number of employees redundant, are likely to produce the completely opposite result.
The subject has lately become particularly popular by reason of the results produced by a recent investigation conducted by Aon Consulting, involving 7,200 employees across 10 European Countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the UK). A relatively considerable 15 percent of the respondents admitted that the last time they took a day off from work by reason of health-related issues they were actually feigning illness.
Each year, employees in Europe take more than 800 million sick days, albeit these are not clearly all related to fictitious illness. Taking heed of all of the relevant variables as regards the 10 countries object of the study, the total cost incurred by employers has been calculated at nearly a billion hours in lost manhours and over 40 billion Euros. This might indeed represent just the tip of the iceberg; it is in fact assumed that many respondents to the survey did not unveil their real attitude towards this undesirable employee practice. Yet, this cost represents a conservative estimate in that it does not consider the indirect, associated costs.
Panellists listed amongst the main reasons for feigning sickness:

- The need to look after a family member;

- Letting repairmen into their home;

- Grieving a relative passed away;

- Feeling down after having broken up with the partner.
Irrespective of the genuine reasons behind this individuals’ behaviour, it is undeniable that the phenomenon has assumed massive proportions and represents a problem employers should learn to tackle and struggle to address. It is difficult to come up with an effectual and universal recipe for success, the one size hardly fits all; notwithstanding, some general valuable advises can be indeed identified and recommended.


One of the main reasons, arguably the main reason, for individuals adopting the throw a sickie approach is that, in case of sudden and unexpected needs, calling in sick is the easiest and fastest way for an employee to get a day off. More often than not, employers introduce specific, rigorous absence management policies providing for requests for days off to be notified to the employer with a minimum notice period. In essence, by introducing these procedures employers aim at ensuring their management the necessary time to properly evaluate and decide whether the employee requests can be accepted according to the business needs. Employers cannot clearly run the risk that employee absence may jeopardize the business activity. In their decision-making process managers take heed of the production deadlines and of the service level agreements negotiated with their customers as well as of the other variables having a direct impact on the business efficiency and productivity levels. By means of the authorization process, employers basically aim at ensuring that the absence of one or more employees in the different organizational units will not affect the unfolding of the day-to-day business operations.

The employer’s viewpoint is utterly comprehensible, but it cannot be denied that the employee point of view cannot be overlooked either. Something unexpected in an employee’s private life, which deserves attention, care and possibly immediate action, may always occur and under such circumstances employees should feel to be supported by their employer. Understanding and comprehension should be reciprocal, but in order to achieve this objective mutual trust, honesty and respect are all definitely key.


For employees it is important to know that in the event some adverse, unexpected circumstances should arise they can call their employer and ask for a day off for personal-related reasons and promptly receive confirmation on the phone. Employers, at the same time, should trust employees and rely on the circumstance that whether an individual reports sick it is because this really has some health-related problems.

It clearly remains to define what an employer may intend for “adverse, unexpected circumstances”, a number of examples listed in the company absence policy may definitely help to better define these and the employer expectations in terms of employee attendance. Such an organization initiative may also prove to be beneficial to better define the employer expectations as regards the content of the psychological contract, where amongst the mutual unwritten obligations morally, albeit not legally, binding employers and employees a considerable element of trust and honesty is invariably included.
Adjusting the organization absence policy in order for this to enable employees to ask for a day off from home might represent a good solution, but not necessarily the best solution.

The findings of the Eon survey revealed that 56 percent of respondents would not feign illness whether these may have access to flexible working schemes or to “social days.” A not negligible 15 percent of the participants to the survey also said that a more interesting job would definitely deter them from feigning sickness and would keep them into their offices, whereas nearly 25 percent of the panellists would be more encouraged to go work whether they could get a cash incentive in addition to their base pay.

The study suggests that in order for employers to effectually tackle the problem these should take a number of different and wide-ranging measures, such as the introduction of flexible working, job enrichment, job design and reward practices, that is to say the adoption of a HRM strategy based on the bundle approach.
The Aon’s research shows that the best solutions to deter employees from feigning illness are:

-       The offering of benefits or social days to be used for non-medical-related reasons (31 percent);

-       The implementation of flexible work policies (27 percent);

-       The access to significant cash incentives (25 percent);

-       The provision of on-site medical care (19 percent);

-       The offer of a more interesting work (15 percent).
These findings reinforce the idea that in order to tackle and curb the problem of fictitious illness, the recipe should not list a single ingredient; on the contrary, to effectively take control of the phenomenon a variety of HRM practices need to be designed and implemented. Once again, the bundle approach is the most effective approach enabling employers to attain the final desired result. Notwithstanding, despite the list of ingredients might sometimes be common to several organizations, the quantity of each ingredient is likely to vary from organization to organization: knowing individuals wants hence definitely represents an inevitable, necessary prerequisite.

Longo, R., (2010), “Throw a sickie” – How to tackle and curb the phenomenon of fictitious sickness?; HR Professionals, [online].