An Unhealthy Way of Handling Sick Days?

One-quarter of managers think that workers are fibbing about being ill to miss work. How to rebuild trust on both sides.

For many managers, it’s always been a matter of trust. The worker takes a sick day, and the assumption is they are indeed ill. But that assumption is starting to erode.

According to data from a recent Resume Builder survey, one-quarter of managers now think that workers who call in sick are lying or exaggerating. Experts say the problem, previously a minor annoyance, has become a mounting conflict as firms look for new ways to restructure their expectations of workers. With little guidance from above, some managers are even reverting to strategies unseen since elementary school: One-third are requesting medical documentation as proof of illness.

Experts say it’s a problem on both sides. On the one hand, leaders and HR departments strive to comply with sick-day legislation and to encourage employees to stay home and rest if they are feeling ill. On the other, when workers suddenly call in sick, leaders face both productivity declines and logistical difficulties. Increasingly, they’re also suspicious about the true cause of the absence. “It’s a slippery slope from a trust perspective,” says Dennis Deans, vice president for global human resources at Korn Ferry. “It becomes an invasion of privacy if you need to get a letter every time.”

To be sure, some employees are taking advantage: A Stanford University study found that golfers played 143% more golf on Wednesdays in 2022 than they did in 2019, which the researchers attributed to “golfing as breaks while working from home.” That figure is likely declining as more companies impose back-to-work mandates, but experts say that such abuses (which also include holding multiple jobs at once, as some employees did) eroded the trust of many managers. HR departments are facing a reckoning with this behavior, says Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice. “We’ve raised a whole generation to take advantage of technology, and how to get by without getting caught.”

Companies have not figured out how to address these behaviors; some have resorted to using technology to take attendance. Sick days have become a new battlefield: Employees are taking roughly 15% more sick time than they did in 2019, with no evidence of more overall illness. One demographic calls in sick the most: workers between the ages of 25 and 34, according to a Gusto survey of 300,000 professional-services businesses. This reflects a broad shift in attitudes toward sick time. Experts say many workers, especially younger ones, consider sick time to be vacation time to which they are entitled, and which they should use, whether they are ill or not. This is a change in common practices from earlier decades, when the norm in many industries was for employees to take sick time only when they (or family members) were actually ill.

At the same time, personal habits around health have been changed by the pandemic. Gone are the days when workers could blithely come to work with a little cough or sneeze. Employees and managers are much more aware when they or their coworkers are suffering from contagious viruses, from colds to COVID-19; they also recognize the importance of recovery in an era when three-quarters of American adults have been diagnosed with COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The corporate-wellness movement has stepped up as well. Companies are placing particular emphasis on details like preventative care—which may in turn make workers feel justified in taking sick days. “After three years of pandemic, many people are more sensitive about their health and attentive to doctor’s appointments,” says strategy expert Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry.

The solution, say experts, is to be very clear with employees about cultural norms. Workers should understand the circumstances in which it’s culturally acceptable to use paid time off on short notice, and leaders should quickly follow up with employees one-on-one if sudden absences are problematic, says Shanda Mints, vice president for implementation in the RPO practice at Korn Ferry. “This comes down to talking to our employees. It’s about trust.”


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