Calling in sick? Not all excuses are equally valid

July 20, 2021

Have you ever woken up on a Monday morning feeling under the weather and thought about taking the day off? No doubt a few of us felt that way on the Monday following England’s loss in the Euro finals, though many schools and workplaces turned a blind eye to workers who turned up a little late.

Of course, there are times when we indeed are too ill to go in and, however reluctant we might feel about taking a day off, we have little choice. Presenteeism, which refers to workers’ culture-related phenomenon of turning up for work when ill, can be bad for the employee and employer alike. Presenteeism can lead to exhaustion, ill-health and burn-out. The growing culture of presenteeism has been blamed for a big part of Britain’s productivity problem.

While you may well think that the Covid-19 pandemic and working from home have upended all this, the opposite is the case. People are now working longer hours than ever; presenteeism has gone digital, with workers responding to emails at all times of the day.

If you are ill, it is better to face up to the fact and take some time off work until you feel better and can operate at your optimum productivity. But, while some excuses are generally considered a valid reason for taking time off, others are just a little more suspect, especially if the employee has a reputation for throwing sickies. Therefore, keeping track of your absences for ill health and your employees is a vital element in any leave management system.

Reasons for taking days off

If you are going to report in sick, not all excuses are considered equally acceptable. A recent UK survey has revealed the most valid reasons for taking days off. Vomiting heads the list, with 73% of respondents agreeing that it is a sure-fire reason for taking the day off. It makes sense, too; vomiting is often caused by norovirus, which is highly infectious. Nowadays, we are all educated in R0 values of viruses, and that of norovirus is 3.75.

The second most acceptable reason is diarrhoea, with 71% saying that would make them stay at home. Of course, vomiting and diarrhoea frequently go together, which is never good news. You would have to have an excellent reason for not taking the day off with that combination, along with a total disregard for your co-workers.

Later on, we look at some government statics on days off from work-related illness and note that mental health is the second-highest reason for taking time off. However, very few employees and employers consider mental health issues valid, with just 17% reporting that it is a good reason for taking time off. Of course, the Great British stiff upper lip purportedly expresses the nation’s fortitude in the face of adversity. Telling your boss that you are taking the day off because you feel stressed will never go down well.

While we are generally expected to grin and bear it, attitudes to mental health are changing, albeit slowly. We are beginning to realise that good workforce wellbeing is essential and, when compromised, leads to lower productivity. Using a staff leave planner to ensure your employees take their leave entitlement can improve their wellbeing and productivity.

We show the top survey results on what people consider a good reason to call in sick in the chart.

Days off for illness statistics

If you are working for a larger business, it is useful to check if your staff are taking more or fewer days off for illness than the rest of the nation’s workforce. Then, just input the data in your staff leave planner and compare the results.

According to government statistics, in Great Britain, 38.8 million working days were lost in 2019/20 due to work-related ill-health. Workplace injuries accounted for 6.3 million and work-related ill-health 32.5 million. The primary reasons for absence were musculoskeletal disorders (8.9 million) and mental health problems, including stress, anxiety and depression (17.9 million).

Once you add in other non-work-related sickness and injury, total days lost rise to over 140 million, equating to around 4.4 days per worker. If your employees exceed this, then there may be some fundamental reason why; if they are taking less, maybe you have an underlying cult of presenteeism. With an online holiday planner, you can track your performance in real-time.