Forty per cent of employers believe major sporting events cause unwarranted absence, the latest annual sickness survey from the Confederation of British Industry and insurance company Axa shows.

This is bad news for this summer, when some of the World Cup football matches will be played during working hours. Yet workplace absence has fallen to its lowest level since the survey began in 1987. That said, almost 75% of employers said staff were inclined to take Mondays and Fridays off and 64% said absenteeism was used to extend holidays.

The Forum of Private Business’s (FPB) most recent survey on the issue found that 71.4% of respondents had suffered through workers’ absence. The most common tools for managing “sickies”, it added, were restricting paid absences, return-to-work interviews and incentives for good attendance.

This is precisely what Potts Bakers, the five-strong Barnsley-based chain, does to

prevent malingerers bringing all the other staff members down. Joint managing director Roger Potts, recalls: “We had one person who had three grandmas who died in three months.”

A few years ago, after estimating that the reasons for 50-60% of “sickies” were fake, the business introduced attendance benefits which add a bonus of £20-£50 per week. It also conducts back-to-work interviews and insists on absenteeism reports, which make it even harder for employees to pull a fast one. As a result, the proportion of fake “sickies” has dropped to an estimated 30-40%, says Potts.

Tough on other staff

Andover independent baker Burbidge’s had a member of staff absent on the morning British Baker telephoned, equating to a third of its full-time workforce. Steve Burbidge, owner, described it as “soul destroying” and said that this made it tough on the other staff.

He, too, has had the granny excuse. “Just how many grannies can one person have? You are trying to build a team of people and one of them is not playing the game. It makes me want to phone Poland.”

Burbidge says he needs his staff to be dedicated if he is to expand and be creative. The fact that he only pays the legally mandatory standard statutory sick pay (SSP) of £70.05 a week from the fourth day of absence should be enough to discourage those who are not genuinely sick, but it does not always work that way.

Burbidge adds that he does not have a problem if someone is genuinely sick, but he has called staff at home to hear them cheerfully answer the phone, only to change the tone of their voice when they realise it is the boss calling. He says it is obvious they are trying it on.

Peter Herd of Wilmslow, based in Wilmslow, Cheshire, has been tackling absenteeism for two years and is just beginning to reap the benefits.The three-strong group uses detailed contracts of employment in which it includes what will happen in case of drug or alcohol abuse.

Carol Gatto-Hall, managing director, says: “If we feel that we’ve had people coming into work not ready or unfit to do the job, we’ve sent them home. That has had quite an impact.”

Everyone else has to work that much harder when someone is off and, when they come back, they incur the wrath of their work colleagues if absent unnecessarily. Gatto-Hall says: “The usual excuse is ‘Mummy’s forgotten to take the overalls out of the washing machine’. A 19-year-old told me that.”

Another time, an employee said she had run out of petrol. Gatto-Hall asked her where she was, offering to pick her up. “She didn’t know what to say because she was still in bed.”

The company now moves sales assistants between its three branches, which are all within a 10-mile radius. Gatto-Hall says this has helped with absenteeism, because staff feel they are contributing more to the whole business and understand they are not just in an isolated shop. “They feel they are putting more into the business – putting ideas into other branches – and it maintains their interest,” she explains.

Salford-based Employment Law Advisory Services says a quarter of small businesses are so scared about being sued that they are refusing to tackle their own lazy staff. But Gatto-

Hall is not easily scared off. She has fired three staff in the last six months – one of them due to absenteeism. “They seem to think the employment laws are made to protect them… it’s not true.”

The company pays sales staff the basic SSP, but tops it up for staff in the bakery “because it’s a difficult job. They do an awful lot of hours and they are all salaried. If they abuse it, we have to put them back on to SSP.”

Gatto-Hall says the secret is to make staff feel part of the business and give them as much information as possible. “If you don’t, they are just going through the motions,” she says.

Mike Petrook, spokesman for the Chartered Management Institute, says the key issue is that, while employers are continually looking for ways to stay “lean and mean”, they also need to ensure that genuinely ill staff are not penalised and sick people are not encouraged to work when they are not fully fit.

“After all, a culture of confidence needs to be created in which employers should be able to trust their staff when they phone in unwell. Positive approaches to managing absenteeism are more likely to reduce its occurrence,” he says.

How to tackle absenteeism

Whenever staff phone in sick, ask what is wrong, when they expect to be better and to keep you informed.

Hold a back-to-work interview when they return. This will act as a deterrent to people who may not want to be questioned over their fake illness, and will allow you to uncover any underlying factors for those who are regularly genuinely ill.

Monitor the number of occasions of sickness and discipline staff upon a trigger. Seeing that action is taken against people who overstep the mark should act as a deterrent.

In the most extreme cases request permission to approach their GP for a medical report to uncover evidence of their dishonesty.

Only pay SSP, rather than their full wage, but consider that punitive measures usually demotivates a workforce.

Reward good attendance with extra holiday or a weekend break and reduce extra holiday for good attendance for each day off sick.

Use a computer to analyse and tackle absence and for isolating sickness patterns.

Keep channels of communication open with staff, so employees gain a sense of involvement in the direction of the business.

Create a culture of trust in which employees have the confidence to make decisions.

Encourage staff at all levels to learn new skills. Helping them to develop keeps them motivated.

Identify employees’ career path and plan their progression.

Introduce flexible working practices, so employees with families are less likely to take time off for personal reasons or when children are sick.

Celebrate individual and company success, praising those responsible.

Create an environment in which staff can socialise. This is good for team spirit.

Source: Employment Law and Advisory Services; Cripps Harries Hall LLP, Bibby Financial Service

What the law says:

The Employment Rights Act 1996 sets out the employee’s right not to come into work when ill and the measures which employers must follow in such circumstances.

Employees’ rights to Statutory Sick Pay are included within the Statutory Sick Pay (General) Regulations 1982, as amended.

Employers’ rights with regards to staff who take time off sick for genuine reasons are

included in the Employment Rights Act 1996. This sets out how employers should deal with workers who are ill.

When employees give fake reasons, this becomes a contractual matter and depends on what contract, if any, the employee has. Most employers will be able to invoke disciplinary action for misconduct.

If employees have been sacked for taking time off sick, but they were genuinely ill, they can pursue a case at an Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal. The maximum penalty for employers is capped at £58,400. The average penalty is closer to £8,000.

Source: Peter Mooney, head of consultancy at Employment Law and Advisory Services.