Absenteeism in the workplace has a massive effect on the economy, with estimates putting its cost to the UK at £18 billion a year. Yet while many people have genuine long-term sickness issues, a recent industry report revealed that unauthorised absence is also a huge issue under the overarching issue of absenteeism, with its root causes often linked to mental health and an employee’s unhappiness at work.
There is much information available about how to deal with absenteeism itself, but what are the real reasons behind unauthorised absence – particularly when it comes to employees who routinely take a disproportionate amount of sick days?
We spoke to a male professional in his 20s – who asked to remain anonymous – about the circumstances that led to him taking an astonishing 32 sick days last year…
You took over 30 fraudulent sick days last year. Why?
Because, after a while, I knew I could get away with it, and I hated the job.
Where was it, and why was it so bad?
I’ve worked quite a lot in call centres, mainly in insurance. The company where I took all those sick days was huge – a household name with several thousand employees – but I think all the problems started with the poor training that I and other people around me got. It just starts a snowball effect of unhappiness and stress that ends up with people throwing loads of sickies.
The call centre wasn’t one of those ones you get PPI calls from, or ones where people phone you up telling you you’ve been in an accident when you haven’t. It dealt with insurance and pensions, so you couldn’t just blag it. Anything to do with financial services is quite complex, so you need to know your stuff, which is why you need good and thorough training.
The training course was three weeks long, but I knew we were going to be in trouble the minute it started. This is no word of a lie: from 9am until 5pm, except for an hour for lunch, they guy teaching us just read the training from a folder. No interaction, no explanation, nothing. Just a box ticking exercise that was supposed to prepare us for our jobs. It was like reading a Haynes car manual to someone and then saying, ‘Right then – go and put that Ford Fiesta back together’. I bumped into my manager at lunch a couple of times and told him I didn’t think the training was going in. He just patted me on the back and went, ‘You’ll be fine mate!’.
One person actually left the company during the training – they said it’d be our fault when we couldn’t handle the calls because we wouldn’t know what we were talking about. They were right. I told my manager more forcefully that I wasn’t ready to start taking calls – that none of us were. He just said, ‘Listen, you’ll be fine. Stop stressing!’.
What happened when you were put on calls?
Every single call was a nightmare. Every call. Within the first hour a guy in his 70s phoned up to ask a fairly detailed question about his pension and an old endowment policy that related to it – I knew as soon as he started talking I was in trouble. I had to put him on hold three times while I tried to find out the answers. He became really angry and patronising. Ironically he actually said, ‘If I’d have had the training you’ve probably had, I wouldn’t know either’. He was right.
After the call my manager came over. He’d been listening in, and I could tell he was annoyed. He just said ‘Well, that went well’ really loudly, humiliating me in front of everyone. I wanted to say, ‘Well what did you expect?’ Instead I just called in sick the next morning, because I was still really annoyed about being set up for a fall with zero support, and I couldn’t face another day being shouted at by customers and then told off by management for something I didn’t really feel was my fault.
When I went back in the day after, there were no questions asked about my day off. Not so much as, ‘Feeling better?’. My manager didn’t even mention it. It got me thinking… maybe I can do it a bit more?
Did you notice anyone else taking a lot of sickies?
Well, funnily enough, it started to dawn on me that a lot of people were doing it. A guy I got on well with, who sat near me, didn’t turn up for a few days. When he came back he just winked at me and said, ‘Had a really bad sickness bug, mate’. If you said you’d been sick you were told to stay away for 48 hours, and the place was so big that no one batted an eyelid anyway. I thought, ‘Right then – I’ll have some of this’.
How rife was it?
It almost became like a game. Now and again people would arrange to have days off at the same time so they could play Xbox or go on a ‘sickie sesh’, as they used to be called, but I never really did that. I did it more to give myself a break, and as a way of sticking two fingers up to the management. Most of the time I was just chilling at home, relaxing, having a lie-in, bit of Netflix. I was stressed, being talked to like a piece of dirt by managers, shouted at by customers, not particularly well paid… no one seemed to be looking out for you. Why should I feel guilty about throwing a sickie at a place like that?
So how many sick days did you take last year?
I took 32 last year – but there was this other guy who must’ve taken over 50. It was such a running joke that his nickname was ‘Sabbatical’. I’d made it my mission to really push it as far as I could, but this bloke was on another level. I think people on the floor actually respected him for being so blatant about it. But he was careful too: nothing whatsoever on any social media while he was off. Not so much as a comment.
Why do you think so many people take unauthorised absences?
I think a lot of it’s down to stress, which usually stems from bad management. There’s this major fallacy about people throwing lots of sickies that they’re lazy and can’t be bothered, but that’s not my experience. Call centres are pretty fast-paced so boredom isn’t much of an issue. But, when you mix that environment with poor management, rubbish training and a constant stream of difficult targets to hit, the results of all those emotions are going to manifest themselves somehow – and quite often that’s by people not turning up to work.