According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sick days taken by UK workers fell to the lowest on record in 2017, down to just 4.1 days from 7.2 recorded in 1993. With figures remaining low in 2018 (4.4), we wanted to conduct a study to find out why. We’ve all had days where we don’t feel quite up to it but decide to suffer in our office chair rather than recover in bed, but why do we feel the need to do so, and is this something that has become more common in modern offices? Our research looks at people’s attitudes towards taking sick days, drawing comparisons between generations, in the hope we can find out why the number of sickness absences has seen such a decline.
Growing Pressure to Avoid Taking Sick Days
In our survey of 2,000 UK workers, we asked if people feel under pressure to avoid taking sick days. Nearly three-quarters (74%) felt they needed to avoid taking days off. This means the vast majority of the UK workforce are pushing themselves to come into the office, even when they’re sick. When asked why they felt this pressure to avoid taking time off, respondents gave the following reasons:
- Stressed about my workload – 33%
- Pressure from my manager – 23%
- Telling my manager that I am sick makes me anxious – 21%
- Pressure from my team – 21%
- I feel I have already taken too many sick days already – 12%
- I am worried it will affect my chances of promotion – 11%
The three most common causes for pressure related to sick days come from managers and the stressful workloads they’re piling on their team. It could be that managers aren’t doing enough to allow their staff to take time off when they’re unwell.
When compared across generations, the results suggest the pressure workers feel to avoid taking time off could be behind the decrease in sickness absences in the UK. Just 44% of over 65s said they feel under pressure to avoid taking sick days, compared to a huge 86% of 25-34-year olds. The younger members of the workforce are also feeling the strain put on them by their managers, as well as feeling more pressured to come into work due to a heavy workload.
Comparisons between the two highlight a key difference:
What Constitutes a Day Off Sick?
Younger generations are taking to the office with colds and headaches in order to avoid work piling up on them or falling out of favour with their manager. The following section further supports generational differences when it comes to attitude towards sick days.
People have different opinions on what warrants a sick day. Some workers may take a day off for a common cold, while others may feel they need to battle their way a migraine to get through to 5 pm. But our research has highlighted quite a strict outlook on what constitutes a day off sick:
Here’s what UK workers believe qualifies you for a day off sick:
(% who say it constitutes a sick day)
- Fever – 51%
- Food poisoning – 67%
- Needing to go to hospital – 60%
- Common cold – 21%
- Headache or migraine – 35%
- Poor mental health – 38%
- Burnout – 25%
Nearly half believe you should come into work with a fever, and 79% have no sympathy for those suffering from a common cold. What is even more surprising is 40% don’t believe a trip to the hospital is a valid excuse, and 62% say poor mental health isn’t enough to warrant a sick day.
These stats show that people are not only feeling pressure from their managers to avoid taking time off sick, but many don’t believe genuine sickness symptoms mean you need the day off. The trend when comparing generations attitude toward office sickness continues in this category too.
Here is the generational breakdown:
Lying Is Becoming More Common
Besides common cold and headaches or migraines, younger generations are less sympathetic than over 65s when it comes to taking sick days. Even despite the growing education around mental health and burnout, just 29% believe poor mental health warrants time off, and even less (22%) say burnout constitutes a sick day. This means, while 25-34-year olds are suggesting they feel pressure from their manager to avoid taking sick days, they’re also feeling the pressure from their peers and from themselves to battle their way through whatever illness they may have.
An unusual trend, when you consider the stigma towards taking sick days revealed in our research, is that lying to pull a ‘sickie’ is more common amongst younger generations. Despite the pressure they reported from all corners of their jobs to avoid taking time off to recover from illness, 71% of 25-34-year olds admitted to lying to take the day off sick – more than any other age bracket involved in the study.
Younger members of the workforce are much stricter when it comes to what illnesses constitute a day off, but deem it more acceptable to use their sick days for leisurely activities such as catching up on TV or visiting friends. We asked people about their reasons for lying about being sick, and here is the breakdown by generation:
This is a worrying trend for businesses. According to our research, employees lying about being sick cost businesses £5.6 billion in 2019. If this is something that is becoming more common amongst younger generations, this figure could continue to rise.
Higher in every category, the results highlight that it’s becoming more common to use sick days for leisure or hangover recovery, rather than to combat actual sickness.
What Can Businesses Do?
There isn’t a great deal businesses can do to stop employees lying, but our data suggests that managers and HR teams could work to reduce the pressure workers feel to avoid taking absences for sickness. The biggest cause for stress surrounding sick days was falling behind on work. Businesses should accommodate employees being off sick by ensuring their workload doesn’t pile up on them during their time off.
Managers can do more to make sure employees feel comfortable calling in sick and taking time off if they’re unwell. More training should be provided by businesses to help managers handle office sickness, and if a business has a simple policy on how to call in sick, it may help reduce employee anxiety.
Our data also shows that younger members of the workforce are less clear on their rights when it comes to taking sick days, which could also help explain why they feel under so much pressure. Less than half (47%) of 25-34-year olds said they are aware of their company’s policy on sick days, compared to 73% of over 65s. Knowing the company policy on office sickness provides information to employees on the time they’re allowed off, what they can take sick days for, and how to phone in sick should they need to. This clarity may help reduce the pressure they feel surrounding sick days.
Our research has highlighted a clear shift in attitudes towards taking sick days. Younger generations are more likely to lie about being sick to accommodate the likes of a hangover recovery or catching up on a TV series, yet are taking less sick days for legitimate illnesses due to the pressure from their workload and those around them. When employees force themselves into work when they’re not well, their productivity dips and they also risk spreading sickness around the office via their shared spaces and office supplies. It would be beneficial for businesses to address the stigma surrounding sick days and encourage younger employees to take time off when required, while being more open and honest about the sick days they do take.
If you have any thoughts or stories on office sickness, share them with us on our Twitter at @viking_chat.