Two in every five adults would happily take a sick day if they felt they needed a day off – meaning they would essentially be lying about the reason why they’re absent, according to a ComRes poll for the BBC on morality in the workplace. [1]

Exploring workers’ self-justifications for taking sick days on false pretences, BBC News heard from a male oil and gas technician – who preferred not to be identified – whose hours are typically unsociable, and often require him to be on call. The technician explained that his firm regularly moves schedules around: “They even ask us to cancel holidays or shorten them to cover jobs and we always work over Christmas. I’ve missed my children growing up, birthdays, special occasions - so I feel justified pulling a sickie now and again.” [2]

A reader called Evie who contributed to the story noted: “Depression, anxiety and other conditions can trap you in your house and make it feel impossible to face work, but it is far easier to tell your boss you’re not feeling well, especially if you think your boss [or] company will be unsympathetic.”

Earlier this month, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the UK’s total number of sick days had rocketed by 10 million last year to 141 million in total, after having remained relatively flat since 2010. [3]

Reflecting on those figures, Robert Half UK managing director Matt Weston said: “Our recent research revealed that more than one in 10 UK employees are unhappy at work, with many finding their job stressful and reporting dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. Sickness and absences at work are one of the indicators to employee wellbeing.” [4]

Speaking to the BBC, occupational psychologist Hayley Lewis pointed out: “It’s often more about your relationship with your line manager. And if you’re not getting on with them and you can’t solve the problem [behind your exhaustion], it’s sometimes easier just to pull a sickie. Also, in sectors where jobs have been cut, people are facing increased strain in their roles. When people don’t feel secure in their jobs and have higher workloads they feel vulnerable. People want to be seen to be strong, so sometimes the easiest thing to do is to throw a sickie when it gets too much.”

Crucially, she added: “We look to role models. If the boss is dragging themselves in, not taking breaks, eating lunch at their desk, it reinforces the message that it is not okay to take a break.” If workers don’t feel that they can comfortably request conventional leave, Lewis noted, they will feel they have no option but to call in sick.

So, is this problem all down to the sorts of examples that bosses are setting for their staff?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We cannot underestimate the importance of role models, or the effects of how managers behave – particularly if they have significant power and influence. Workers will look at those individuals and say to themselves, ‘Right: that’s the way we’re meant to do things around here – that’s what the organisation expects, and if we want to get on, or even just survive, those are the behaviours we must adopt.’ So, managers do need to take a very close look at their own relationships with work, overwork, stress and taking time off, and consider in the first instance whether those relationships work for them. Then they can then think about what sort of examples their habits are setting for members of staff.”

However, she points out: “What’s also happening here is that people are compensating themselves for discretionary effort – or even everyday efforts they feel aren’t being fully recognised or rewarded. In other words, these workers are taking the view that the only way they can satisfy their own sense of what’s fair is by taking occasional days off, rather than by risking somewhat complex or difficult conversations with their bosses about shortcomings with the ways in which they are being rewarded. Because once you make something transparent and put it out there – ‘I believe I’m entitled to an extra day off in return for output X, Y or Z – it contravenes a host of policies around annual leave allowance, and the whole employer-employee discussion takes on a far more contentious tone.”

Cooper notes: “If you don’t want to disclose the real reason why you are absent – because you’re concerned that it will look as though you’re neither up to the job, nor giving it your best – it’s understandable why you would think it’s so much easier to say that you’re unable to come in because you’re feeling unwell. But there’s a sensitivity around this area that the manager is required to cotton on to. In order to sense a change in an employee’s mood, or pick up on any behaviour that could be deemed unusual or out of character, it’s important for managers to have a strong sense of what constitutes in character.

“That highlights how important it is for you to really get to know the people you are working with – to set up conversational opportunities that will encourage employees to divulge the sort of information that will help you take a view on what normal behaviour looks like. And, of course, to build trust – to convey that it’s okay for employees to come to you and say, ‘I’m under a huge amount of stress… I don’t think I can take much more of this right now.’ Then, as manager, you would encourage that person to take time off, because clearly, their mental health is at risk.”

She adds: “This all ties into our Institute companion Charles Hampden-Turner’s classic definition of trust as ‘That which lies between people’. Approaching trust in that spirit will not only enable a higher degree of honesty, but ensure that when staff say they are finding things difficult, there is proper support in place.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on building trust and the healthy workplace

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4]

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