The great ‘Aussie sickie’ is supposedly embedded in our work culture – and can be a frustrating problem for any HR department to manage. Research shows that even the very ‘best’ employees are occasionally guilty of ‘chucking a sickie’. If it’s a one-off ‘mental health day’, then generally this isn’t too problematic for businesses.

But it’s when employees start taking sick days as a matter of course – or see their sick leave as being part of their annual leave entitlement – it can lead to issues around lost morale, lost productivity and increased costs for your business.

How do you identify someone is abusing their sick leave entitlement? How many ‘sickies’ are simply too many? What should you do when someone’s suffering a genuine long-term illness or injury? And, what are your options if you suspect someone isn’t really sick?

The culture of chucking a sickie

A National Sickie Survey in 2018 by jobs website Adzuna, found that 2.3 million Australian workers have taken an illegitimate or ‘fake’ sick day over the past year, equating to 18.5 per cent of the entire working population. The worst part? The cost of fake sick days is estimated at $823 million. So, what are the most common reasons employees gave for taking a sickie? According to the survey, responses included being tired, being bored, attending a job interview for another job, using up sick leave and, unsurprisingly, recovering from a hangover.

Despite the apparent scale of the problem, a survey from rostering software provider Tanda found that there was good news – many employees are now opting to take annual leave instead of a ‘sickie’ for non-health-related leave requests, which in HR terms is the right thing to do. And at the end of the day, it is important to remember that most people are honest and use their entitlements correctly so this is not about setting up draconian rules to punish employees who are following the system correctly.

What’s a standard sick leave entitlement?

The National Employment Standards include both paid and unpaid entitlements to sick and carer’s leave. Employees can take time off for personal illness – including stress and pregnancy-related illness – as well as caring responsibilities for immediate family or household members and family emergencies.

The minimum sick and carer’s entitlement for a full-time employee is 10 days a year. Part-time employees receive a pro-rata entitlement to this depending on how often they work. This entitlement accumulates each year. For instance, if someone only uses two of their 10 sick days in the first year of service, the following year they’ll have an entitlement to 18 sick days.

Beyond that, they can take another two days’ unpaid carer’s leave, while there is no real limit on how much sick leave they can take.

How do you know if someone’s faking it?

Generally, if an employee keeps taking a Monday off, you’re probably right to start suspecting there’s something going on. Similarly, if you start to see a pattern of behaviour – like mystery illnesses that spring up every time there’s a major sporting event – it could be worth investigating further.

However, in our experience, it’s often not obvious. And, if you do find someone has a pattern of absenting themselves for work, it could be for legitimate reasons. These might include mental health, domestic violence situations or bullying.

When it comes to appropriate HR practice, it’s best to not jump to conclusions. Your first reaction should be one of genuine concern. You should also get on the front foot and begin talking to an employee who’s taking a lot of sick leave, rather than letting things continue to drag on.

How to talk to your employees about their sick leave

The simplest and most constructive way to approach your employee is to see if you can be of any assistance. If an employee is genuinely sick, they’ll usually appreciate that you’re taking it seriously and willing to help. Often this is all an employee needs to open up and let you know what’s really going on.

Consider people that might be suffering from chronic illnesses or medical situations that require intensive treatment. For many employees, these types of situations are difficult for people to bring up. However, if you are aware, you can implement appropriate systems to support your employee – including identifying who takes over their work when they do fall ill.

If the sick leave is being used to avoid coming to work as they may not be enjoying their job, you implement a plan to support them too.

At Catalina Consultants, in our experience, the people least inclined to talk, are usually the ones who aren’t using the leave genuinely. However, when it comes to bringing sick leave up with an employee, the trick is to tread carefully. For example, people who are facing domestic violence or a bullying situation may also be less inclined to talk, so it’s important they know that a door is always open and that your position is one of genuine concern.

Let people know where you stand

In a situation where you’ve been genuinely concerned and the employee says they’re fine, it’s the appropriate time to let them know that once their sick leave entitlement has gone, they’ll be moving to unpaid leave.

We know many employers here will default, letting people take annual leave as an alternative. When it comes to appropriate HR practice, this can be fine, but dependant on circumstance. If someone has a mindset of taking excessive days off, allowing them to access annual leave won’t be enough to dissuade them and, you’re unlikely to see any patterns change in the future. Unpaid leave often has a more immediate and positive response.

Another thing to consider in these types of situations is implementing a workplace policy, requesting proof of sickness. It’s common HR practice to have a policy, requesting a medical certificate or statutory declaration, when taking sick leave. For repeat offenders, it’s advisable that you request this every single time they are sick. Stick to your policy and make sure everyone understands and adheres to it.

Dealing with a prolonged illness

When someone is suffering with a chronic illness, they’ll naturally fall into the realm of unpaid leave. And, when that happens, employers need to be mindful of two things.

Firstly, if an employee takes more than three months of sick leave over a 12 month period, they may cease to be protected from dismissal. If you do choose to go down the path of terminating employment, you still need to follow standard HR procedures and in particular, engaging in consultation with the employee. Terminating someone’s employment when they’re genuinely ill isn’t something an employer should rush into. You should always seek proper HR advice before commencing down this route.

Secondly, anyone dealing with a prolonged illness generally needs to keep paying their bills when they’re sick (or often, especially when they’re sick). If they’re unfit for work and only have the capacity to take unpaid leave, this can become a serious problem. You might find employees attempting to work when they really shouldn’t be. Again, these types of situations require careful navigation by you as the employer. Check all rules around requesting medical reports and doctors opinions.

Above all, remember you have a duty of care to provide a workplace that is safe. If someone is genuinely unfit for work, it’s imperative that it’s dealt with effectively and empathetically.

Finally, be mindful of mental health

It’s important to note that mental illness can be the cause of many long-term workplace absences. Employers need to be mindful and considerate of the complexities that lie with mental illness. Particularly, before taking action against any employee. Support from organisations like Beyond Blue can help as a starting point. 

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