- Spotting summer sickies and managing heat stress

The stats

Records show that the number of sick days taken by UK employees was lower in 2016 than it has been for the past 25 years since comparable records began. According to The National Office of Statistics, work days lost to illness was just 4.3 per worker last year, compared to 7.2 days in 1993 (The Independent).

Despite this, the ‘summer sickies’ still appear to be causing problems for many employers, with the prospect of enjoying fun in the summer sun enticing employees away from their jobs sitting inside an office or being out on the road all day etc.

The causes

As well as (limited amounts of) UK sunshine, the summer also brings with it last minute ‘foreign holiday’ deals, music festivals such as Glastonbury and ‘V’, or popular sporting events including Wimbledon and the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final.

But could there be another possible reason employers see the number of employee sick days increase during the summer months? For some individuals, there is an increased risk of Heat Stress with a contributing factor being the seasonal change of air temperature which can lead to a variety of different symptoms including:

• The inability to concentrate
• Feeling de-energised
• Muscle cramps
• Heat rash
• Severe thirst
• Fainting
• Heat exhaustion – including fatigue, giddiness, nausea, headaches and moist skin
• Heat stroke

The HSE offers practical advice to employers www.hse.gov.uk/temperature/heatstress.

So how do you go about deterring fake absence or managing employee’s heat stress?

Deterring fake absences

We’ll come on to how to deal with employees who fake illness later in the blog, however for now let’s concentrate on stopping them doing it in the first place.

Prevention is better than cure; many employers have noted an increase in absences around the time of big social or sporting events. To avoid this, could your business offer flexible working when it is known there is such an event? We would warn you to be careful with this though – only do it for one-off popular events and have strict guidelines in place that have been well communicated to all staff at the onset. This should prevent people taking advantage or becoming complacent; and allow for adequate staffing for your business.

Alternatively, another option could be to allow them to take a short break from their working day and set up an area with a radio / TV showing the event, with an agreement in place that any time taken would be made up later. This could be a great boost for team morale if you were to make an ‘event’ of the viewing itself, perhaps providing snacks and refreshments. It is advisable to check there is a demand for this though, before setting it up!

A different approach to take to deter employees from taking ‘sickies’ is by reminding them of the Return-to-Work Interview process (where you use this). The thought of having to complete this paperwork and/or attend the Interview is often enough for people to think better of faking illness as they are conscious of the risk of being caught out when they return.

For more advice on conducting return to Work Interviews and generating loyalty and commitment from your employees, get in touch.

Managing heat stress

Research suggests 40% of today’s workers feel overworked, pressured and pushed to the point of anxiety and poor health. This impacts their productivity and efficiency, which can stall progress and slow business growth (FMP Global). With this likely to be worse in the summer months, it is important that you as an employer know what you could be doing to help your employees, for both the health and wellbeing of the employee and the good of your company.

We recommend you encourage your employees to implement the following techniques for keeping your office cool and calm this summer:

• Take short breaks – get away from the computer screen and go outside; research shows that sunlight on the body increases serotonin levels and makes you feel more relaxed and at ease
• Move about – the summer heat can lead to feelings of ‘sluggishness’ which can make you feel fed up and tired; by getting at least a little bit of exercise during a working day you can release some endorphins from the body which will make you people better. Perhaps encourage them to go for a walk at lunchtime or start a walk / cycle to work scheme?
• Use fans or air conditioning
• Ensure proper hydration is maintained – avoid caffeine

The main thing is to be approachable; working together to tackle any issues or concerns will be beneficial for you, your employee and your business. Employees are less likely to have to take time off for heat stress or not want to come in if they feel understood and know that help is available.

What to do if you suspect a ‘summer sickie’ is being pulled

Whether it’s posts online or information passed on from other employees, there may be occasions when you believe that an employee may not be being completely truthful about their absence.

The important thing to remember is that being ill doesn’t mean you have to be bedridden – if an employee reports seeing their sick colleague walking down the street or driving down the road, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been lying. Similarly, if a picture has been put on social media of them enjoying a day out somewhere, it doesn’t mean that the picture was taken on that day. It is important for both the relationship between you and your employee and for legal reasons that you do your research before approaching the employee. If they have more than two years’ service, false accusations could lead to a claim of constructive dismissal and, if they are covered by the protected characteristics within the Equality Act, they need no minimum length of service at all.

However, be careful when conducting this research and make sure you consider data protection and the right to privacy issues. The Information Commissioner’s Office’s guidance in the Employee Practice Code specifies that covert surveillance (not telling the employee you are looking into them), should only be done in exceptional circumstances and is rarely justified. They state a number of different conditions that have to be in place before this is carried out.

Make sure to carry out all the usual back-to-work actions such as Return to Work Interviews and the relevant paperwork and if you do suspect them, you could carefully press on certain questions where you believe they might be lying.

Give us a call today to find out more about how best to handle this process and to get legal advice on the best action to take in these situations.

Cover your back

We recommend taking the following steps so that if any of the issues or problems discussed do arise, the necessary actions have been taken to manage them going forward with minimal impact on your business:

• Have documented policies and procedures in place; the back-to-work process – what employees will be required to do upon their return to work; any disciplinary action that will take place for employees found out to be lying about their time off – detail what action will take place, how and when
• Regularly remind and update employees of any changes that are made to any of the policies so they are aware, hopefully deterring them from taking the action in the first place
• Keep a written record of any time that employees have requested to have off but for whatever reason the request has been rejected – you then have evidence for a case if the employee fails to show up to work on these days
• Keep a written record of any time that employees have been off sick to look for any patterns or regularity
• Have regular reviews of working conditions, ask for feedback from employees and be open and be receptive to requests for any changes in the workplace that could provide better conditions for employees’ health.

The overriding point of importance is to keep written records of policies, procedures and requests and to make sure you identify the difference between employees who are being untruthful and ones who are struggling. Supporting your employees and making sure they are looked after will be the biggest deterrent and aid for managing absences.

Need to know more?

For more information and to find out what actions your company can take to ensure loyal, motivated employees, contact us on 01582 883299 or email su@suallen.co.uk.