Call In Sick. No, Really.

A UK study finds alarming numbers of employees coming to the office sick. Can companies reduce the stigma some feel?

There’s a well-worn cliché: Eighty percent of success is showing up. The problem is that increasingly employees are taking that to an illogical extreme, showing up at work when they’re sick

The phenomenon is significant and growing, experts say, and one that executives need to tackle. More than four-out-of-five workers surveyed said they’d seen evidence of “presenteeism”—showing up ill—in their workplace, and one-in-four said the matter had gotten worse over the last 12 months, according to a recent study by The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a London-based professional group.

Whether workers know it or not, when they turn up sick to work they cause problems. “If you are ill, stay at home,” says Fiona Vickers, Korn Ferry’s managing director, digital for Europe in London. The reasons are obvious: Sick workers aren’t nearly as productive as are healthy ones, and by showing up when they are unwell, they can remain unhealthy for longer and prolong their period of suboptimal performance. 

Worse than not performing well, sick workers could make matters worse by transmitting their illness to their colleagues. Vickers says she experienced that first hand. “One person came in and infected everyone and the man hours we lost was ludicrous,” she says.

The matter can be extremely tricky when the boss is sick, of course because sometimes there is no one else who can fill those shoes. One solution might be to have designated deputy leaders who could fill in when the boss is out. “So long as you have been given the appropriate training and have been told you’ll need to deputize, then that can work,” says Vickers. 

Some companies make a bad situation worse by having a poorly thought-out policy for paid time off. For instance, some companies combine the number of paid vacation days with the number of paid sick days. They then tell employees to use the benefit as they see fit. 

Experts say there can be two problems with this approach. The first is that it looks heartless when people are genuinely unwell. “I don’t think that a specified number of days off is particularly compassionate for people who are genuinely sick,” says Ben Frost, Korn Ferry’s global general manager for Pay. On the side of the spectrum, it also doesn’t address workers who game the system by taking paid sick days when they are perfectly well. “Having a fixed number of paid days off doesn’t help deal with people who are often sick on Mondays and Fridays,” says Frost, noting common way some workers extend their weekends. In those cases, he says, human resource teams should monitor the situation. 

One solution may be to build teams where people can do each other jobs. “When the team captain isn’t there, then needs to be a dynamic where people cover for each other,” he says. When that is possible then no one person being absent presents a risk to the entire operation. Or put another way, when someone is sick everyone else has their back.