How to Handle Sick Leave Abuse in Your Company

Andrew Buck's avatar Andrew Buck May 7, 2024

Every business should have sick leave as part of its leave policy. Everyone gets sick from time to time, and employees need time to rest, recharge, and get back to 100% before coming back to work. It’s also important that staff don’t feel forced to come in when they’re not well, as this risks spreading the illness to other workers.

However, with a generous sick leave policy comes the potential for abuse. While you don’t want to automatically assume people are trying to game the system, you also don’t want people claiming they’re sick when they really aren’t.

In this article we’re going to explain how to manage and limit sick leave abuse in your company, as well as the risks of letting it go unabated. Read on for more.

Sick Leave Abuse Can Be Costly

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), absenteeism costs employers $225.8 billion per year in the United States, which translates to around $1,685 per employee.

However, it’s important to note that this $200 billion cost is not all down to sick leave abuse.

The majority of absences in the workplace are legitimate absences. They are cases where people are actually sick or injured and unable to work.

However, some absences are indeed illegitimate. According to a CIPD 2016 report, illegitimate absences are among the top five most common reasons for sick leave for 24% of people.

That means approximately a quarter of all people are guilty of “pulling a sickie” from time to time. And not only does this add to the cost of absenteeism laid out above, but it indicates a deeper problem, of employees who are disconnected, disengaged, and generally not committed to your team.

Sick leave abuse, or absenteeism, is not alone in costing productive hours for your business. But team members coming in to work despite being injured or unwell is just as harmful.

This is known as Presenteesim, a very real issue costing businesses billions of dollars in lost productivity.

Hit the link above to learn more about presenteeism, and how to stop it becoming an issue for your team.

How to Identify Sick Leave Abuse

Identifying sick leave abuse is difficult, especially in larger organizations.

In a small, close-knit team, it’s easier to tell if something suspicious is going on. But for a larger team, especially those with team members in multiple locations, it’s easy for sick leave abuse to slip under the radar.

In this case, data and pattern recognition are key. This data will help you identify suspicious trends, which you can follow up on.

Patterns of Sick Leave Abuse

Look for patterns of increased absence during crunch time. 

Are there certain employees that frequently call in sick when there is increased pressure to complete projects by deadlines? Are there people who regularly tend to call in sick during scheduled quarterly meetings?

Another sign to look for is a higher than average number of sick leave requests at certain times of the year when there is a greater demand for vacation days. 

For example, during the summer when the weather is nice and everyone is planning activities on the lake, etc. 

Your HR manager could periodically glance at your team’s leave calendar or run absence reports to look for these patterns of sick leave abuse.

Read More: A complete guide on how Time Off Requests should work in your company

What to Do When You Suspect Sick Leave Abuse

When you suspect sick leave abuse, your first instinct might be to take action against the offending employees. 

And you should definitely make it clear in your time off policy what the consequences are for sick leave abuse.

But first, dig deeper to figure out if there really is sick leave abuse going on. And if so, find out the root causes contributing to the issue.

Get the Full Story First

When you suspect sick leave abuse, resist the temptation to jump to conclusions without further investigation. 

Are there other factors that could be at play?

For example, if there is a spike in sick leave requests in October, a possible explanation could be the beginning of the flu season.

Also consider whether the employees in question are demonstrating other signs of absenteeism. 

Is their productivity below where it should be? Are they consistently missing deadlines?

Get a holistic picture of the employee’s overall performance when you suspect sick leave abuse to get a better sense of the story.

Talk to the Team Member

The best way to understand what is really going on is to schedule a meeting with the employee. 

But be aware of how you approach the topic, and the tone of the conversation, especially if this is the first time you’ve noticed an issue. 

It might be best to approach the topic from the point of offering help if the team member is having trouble. 

Avoid having the conversation from a point of assumption that there is sick leave abuse. Remember, you’re still trying to get to the bottom of it all.

Ask them how they’re doing. If they’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, or burned out.

This approach will accomplish a few things. 

First, if there is actually sick leave abuse, then it will make the employee aware that you’ve noticed the issue. That might be enough on its own to prevent further abuse in the future. 

Second, it communicates that you’re concerned about the employee’s well being, and that you’re interested in helping them succeed instead of punishment. It will make them more willing to perform better for you and the team.

Finally, it also allows for more open communication with your employee, which will make it easier for you to learn if they are legitimately having health issues or dealing with burnout, so you can make plans/arrangements accordingly.

Should You Ask for a Medical Certificate?

Ideally, no. You don’t want to promote a culture of mistrust in the workplace where the HR manager has to act like the police and ask for verification when people call in sick. 

Asking to show a medical certificate is like treating the symptom and not the underlying root causes of sick leave abuse, which could be employee burnout, lack of motivation, or misalignment with the company vision/mission. 

But it could be a temporary solution if you suspect sick leave abuse is rampant in your organization. You can ask to see a medical certificate for sick leaves in the short term while you identify the causes, and take steps to prevent them. 

You could also include exceptions in your policy, because sometimes a week isn’t enough to recover if an illness or injury is serious. 

So, for example, you could state in your leave policy that employees get a certain number of paid sick days, but if they need more time to recover, then they can request unpaid sick leave with a medical certificate. 

In these cases, it would be more compassionate to allow employees to present a medical certificate when they get back to work after a recovery.

Related: find out how much PTO is normal in the US, and how this number stacks up to the rest of the world.

Preventing Sick Leave Abuse

You want to create a culture and systems in your organization that prevent sick leave abuse in the first place. Here are a few things to consider.

A Clear Sick Leave Policy

Your time off policy is the foundation that allows your HR team to maintain a team absence schedule that facilitates maximum productivity while also encouraging employees to rest and recover when necessary.

Clearly stating your sick leave policy will encourage employees to take time to recover from illness, but also prevent absenteeism and costly sick leave abuse.

Here are some key points to include in your sick leave policy.

You can also define what is considered abuse of leave policy. Things like requesting sick leave for reasons other than recovering for illness, not showing up for work randomly without requesting leave, etc. 

Employees should be clear on what are the consequences of abusing leave policy. Maybe it’s a warning at first, then loss of leave days, and eventually termination.

A Robust Leave Management System

A robust leave management system allows you to implement a simple process for requesting/approving sick days that is transparent and easy to understand.

When submitting a request for sick leave, each employee will be required to include relevant information like the dates they need to be away, and the reason they need time off. 

You could maintain a manual or a spreadsheet-based system, but a leave tracking software like Flamingo is much more efficient.

Flamingo’s intuitive leave calendar

A software tool like Flamingo makes it easy for the HR manager or department head to keep an eye on the following:

A high-performing leave management system also includes streamlined processes for requesting sick leave days. 

It discourages employees from abusing sick leave because they know that the HR manager will be easily able to review their leave records. 

Try Flamingo for free and get set up in five minutes.

Learn More

Prevent Employee Burnout

One of the best ways to prevent sick leave abuse or absenteeism in general is to make sure that your team members are feeling happy, energized, and stress-free. 

If you can prevent employee burnout, it is less likely they’ll be looking for ways to avoid and skip work.

Here are a few tips. 

Further Reading: Learn more about Employee Burnout – how to recognize this condition, the cost to your business, and how to prevent & treat cases of burnout.

Final Thoughts on Sick Leave Abuse

Absenteeism and sick leave abuse are not only costly for you, the employer, but they also negatively impact productivity and morale for the rest of the team.

Abuse of sick leave is a trust issue. It signals that your employee is, at best, not fully committed to the job, or at worst, actively taking advantage.

This abuse also affects other team members, as they are forced to work harder to make up for absent workers.

You can prevent sick leave abuse by clearly stating your medical leave policy, and by encouraging your team to take adequate time off so they can stay energized and motivated. 

A leave tracking software like Flamingo can make it easy for your HR team to efficiently manage the leave calendar and quickly identify any patterns of sick leave abuse. 

Andrew Buck's avatar

Andrew Buck

Andrew is the content manager at Flamingo. He has managed teams in multiple industries, for both physical and remote businesses, and has experience dealing with the ins and outs of HR and leave management on a daily basis.

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