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The 5 February 2024 was National Sickie Day. According to the latest evidence the UK has an even bigger problem with inactivity due to long-term sickness than previously thought. According to CIPD data in October 2023, employees are now averaging 7.8 days of sickness absence per year, the highest level in a decade. This is an additional two days on the figure recorded in 2020.

Burnout worries

A recent LinkedIn poll found that almost a third (31%) of the 1185 people who responded admitted to ‘pulling a sickie’ at work despite feeling healthy. Whilst 69% said that they had never done it. On the face of it, the results might not seem that worrying. But when you drill down further and find out the main reasons – burnout, needing a break from work, other family commitments – perhaps it’s time for employers to open up better channels of communication with their employees on workplace health and maybe even revisit their flexible working policies.

Time away from work is essential

Taking time off work (holiday leave) and flexible working are both essential for employees to achieve an excellent work/life balance and preserve their mental health. But if the results of this poll are true and some employees are suffering from burnout, then there’s always a chance that this could lead to bigger problems. Taking the time now to find out what is at the root of these behaviours is crucial.

Employee burnout is usually characterised by emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can lead to a lack of engagement, decreased levels of motivation and a decline in productivity. Employers must demonstrate that they care by investing in employees through awareness, time and attention.

Lack of trust or flexibility

What is more extraordinary is that the survey revealed that almost a quarter (23%) of employees took time off to attend a necessary appointment, while one in six (17%) cited an emergency childcare issue and 15% had to care for a relative.

Many companies don’t offer emergency childcare days or emergency caregiver days, which is probably why employees have to take a sick day to plug the gap. Furthermore, often if employers know about healthcare issues, or family problems, in advance, they can make allowances and juggle things around to make it work. But this calls for a flexible and inclusive workplace environment and culture where employees feel they can be honest and won’t be penalised for what they say.

Perhaps, the most disturbing part of the survey was how many people pulled sickies to avoid ongoing work issues, to miss a dealing/avoid doing a piece of work, or to get out of a meeting or pitch. This is probably more difficult to understand. That’s why it’s worth having an open door police for employees who might need to offload some of their worries and anxieties about how they manage busy times, difficult projects and what help and support they are entitled to.

Win, win situation

It’s not rocket science. Employers who trust their people to manage their time benefit from higher staff retention and improved productivity. And if you give employees greater flexibility over when and where they work, it will help them to balance work commitments with personal life commitments, without having to always choose. This will potentially mitigate many of the risks around poor work-life balance, burnout and avoidable sick days.

How I can help

For advice when it comes to improving communication, flexibility and workplace culture surrounding sickness and absence, please email caroline.robertson@actifhr.co.uk