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National Sickie Day: Time to talk solutions for absenteeism 


Posted on: Wednesday February 02, 2022

by Charles Ashwell, New Business Development Director

What is National Sickie Day?

Research has identified the first Monday in February as the most common day for sick leave in the UK. This is when we hit rock bottom in terms of cold dark days and seasonal illnesses like colds and flu. 

Unsurprisingly, depression and anxiety also run high during the winter months. Although the term ‘sickie’ implies a spurious reason for staying home, arguably the stigma around mental health issues leads many people to use physical illnesses as more ‘believable’ sick days excuses. 

Effects of absenteeism in the workplace

In 2019, the CIPD conducted a survey on average work days missed per year – they found that UK workers averaged only six sick days annually.

More recent figures are available, but it’s difficult to say how the pandemic has impacted employee absenteeism, as such figures are obscured by furlough, quarantine and other factors, meaning the illness absence rate in the UK actually fell to 1.8 per cent in 2020 – the lowest figure since records began in 1995. 

Meanwhile, the CIPD’s 2021 research found that 70 per cent of respondents to its 2021 survey reported staff using annual leave for sickness or to catch up on work. This suggests that sickness presenteeism – employees attending work whilst unwell - remained prevalent despite Covid.

The concept of National Sickie Day brings up some interesting questions for HR leaders:
1.    How should we address absenteeism with an employee on an individual level?
2.    What measures can we take to lower absenteeism in the workplace as a whole?

Dealing with absenteeism: Employees 

Absenteeism is a catch-all term to describe employees who regularly fail to turn up to work without providing a good explanation. In theory, it doesn’t include time off for holidays, doctors’ appointments or illness. However, there is a grey area around repeated absence from work because of long-term health conditions, stress, or family issues.

The first port of call for employees with multiple absences from work is usually a chat with their line manger to discuss what’s going on and whether there are any deeper issues at play which warrant further investigation or support. 

  • Is there a physical or mental health condition that the employee needs to manage, and what support can they count on from work?
  • Is everything all right at home? Stress from family/relationship problems or money worries can result in lack of sleep and other mental and physical symptoms which impact on performance. 
  • If there’s no obvious reason for the frequent absences, then is the employee just feeling disengaged from their job? How can we bring the enthusiasm back and empower the employee to bring their best self to work?

Dealing with absenteeism: Organisation

When looking at how to address absenteeism problems, HR leaders need to start with the assumption that their employees want to be in work and their absence should trigger concern for their welfare.

Looking at the list below, you might agree that many of the causes of frequent absenteeism could be addressed by better wellbeing support.

Top causes of absenteeism

  • Minor illnesses – coughs, colds etc.
  • Musculoskeletal injuries, including back pain.
  • Childcare / other caring responsibilities.
  • Mental health – this includes stress and burnout as well as common conditions like depression and anxiety.

(Source: CIPD, Absence measurement and management factsheet, 22 September 2020)

Which organisational measures will reduce absence figures?

Flexible working

Flexible working arrangements can be a significant benefit, especially for those with family commitments or chronic health conditions. This type of arrangement can work particularly well for organisations that operate shift patterns, as employees can flex their hours as needed.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed the game on working from home. Many desk-based employees are utilising a blend of home and office work, with the result that they have a better work/life balance and are more productive.

Employees value flexible and/or home working because it helps them juggle work commitments and childcare, deal with long-term physical or mental illness, or reduce the pressure of stressful jobs. All of these common causes of absenteeism can be addressed by being able to work from home just once a week or being able to work earlier or later than the standard 9-5 every day.

Online GP

We all know that finding the time to speak to a doctor can be difficult, with extended waiting times and unhelpful surgery opening hours. Giving staff access to on-demand GP appointments means that staff can speak to a medical professional via telephone or video consultation, 24 hours a day, and often within a few hours of their request.

As well as providing reassurance on minor problems, online GP appointments can help employees manage their long-term health conditions, preventing extended sickness leave. And as it’s available for the employee’s family too, which can be helpful for reducing the amount of time parents have to take off to care for a sick child.


Employees may be suffering from conditions which are not obvious from the outside but have a severe impact on daily life and can be difficult to discuss in a work context.

Mental health conditions are especially hard to identify, and fear of stigma or lack of understanding may prevent sufferers from seeking help.

But a large-scale study of UK workplaces in 2018 revealed that mental health problems are a significant driver of productivity loss, costing the UK as a whole the equivalent of £38bn. It’s in employers’ interest to prevent mental health problems from developing or improve management of an existing condition.

You can help by providing flexible support; for example an EAP helpline. Employees can access the EAP confidentially, via their own device, in the privacy of their home – or indeed anywhere they feel comfortable. EAPs offer advice on a huge range of complex issues, from mental health to debt advice to addiction.

Want to know more about how helping your employees be well can help your business do well? Visit our employee wellbeing page to learn more about the ROI of wellbeing – and don’t forget to subscribe to our blog for weekly thought leadership straight to your inbox.


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