• Major report by the group risk insurer and Professor Cary Cooper, CBE, finds current absence management approach is heightening employer and employee risk.

• 80 per cent of employees are working sick
• Launch of InteractPlus will change the way businesses manage absence

While technology has changed the way we work, absence management procedures have not kept pace, creating serious welfare, management and productivity issues, according to the major report released today, Sick Notes, by Ellipse, the group risk insurer, and Professor Cary Cooper, CBE, a world authority on workplace issues.

The warning comes at a time when British businesses can ill afford unproductive and/or overstretched workforces. Based on based on quantitative research among workers and managers and our own analysis, Sick Notes, How changes in the workplace and technology demand a rethink of absence management, examines the cause and effect of sickness absence, employee and line manager attitudes towards it, and recommends five steps towards better absence management.

The research finds that the myriad current approaches are not working, meaning that employers are failing to deal with the full risks that employee absence and ill health bring to the workplace. Sick Notes, commissioned to mark the launch of InteractPlus, Ellipse’s unique product integrating disability income protection and absence management, identifies a number of trends and coins some new phrases to help identify what is happening in the modern day workplace.

Key themes and findings from the report:

• MIA – Missing In Absence, how chaotic absence management is damaging both employee and employer. Sick employees are getting ‘lost’ in the system, illnesses are allowed to spiral into chronic conditions and line managers are burdened with a responsibility they are often ill-equipped or too ‘time poor’ to handle. The majority of employers (70 per cent) rely on non-HR personnel to handle sickness, with half (45 per cent) of managers admitting that their people responsible for absence management are either not the best equipped to deal with it. Worryingly, nearly half of managers (41 per cent) say absence procedure is not followed at all.

• Remote working or not remotely working? The impact of ‘always on’ technology has led to many changes in workplace culture, including a growing grey area between the genuine need to take time off to recover and the pressure to keep working. Gone are the days when you sleep off a bout of flu: today we are a nation of STOICs (Sick Though Often Inbox Checking), who are neither fully off work nor fully working. Seventy per cent of line managers and the majority of workers believe working from home more frequently (where practical) would reduce hours lost to sickness.

• The rise of the Wickie (Working Sickie). The prevailing economic climate means working sick is now commonplace, with 80 per cent of people working ill. This is despite the fact that 80 per cent of employers claim to believe that presenteeism – attending work while sick – is a bad thing. On the other hand, while presenteeism is pushing some employees to the brink, over half of workers still confess to ‘pulling a sickie’ when they weren’t ill.

• There is growing recognition that mental illness is a serious issue in the workplace. The stress-induced absence of Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta-Osório and the death of Gary Speed have brought mental illness – so often swept under the carpet – to national attention and it seems managers and employees are beginning to understand it better (60 per cent of line managers compared to 48 per cent of workers). Indeed, managers claim to be at least as sympathetic as their employees towards a range of different illnesses.


Ellipse and Professor Cooper focus their recommendations on five steps to remove the chaotic approach to absence management and instead utilise technology to detect and address the situation early. Allowing employers to take appropriate ‘early warning’ action and ultimately avoid short-term absenteeism becoming a long-term problem.

1. Ensure you have a clear and simple procedure
2. Use technology to monitor trends
3. Maintain proactive contact with the employee
4. Consider external expertise
5. Foster a culture of employee engagement and consider flexible working

Professor Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, comments on the research: “Affecting all employers and all but the very hardiest workers, illness is just a fact of working life but it’s not always an inevitability.

“We should be trying to prevent long-term absence as much as possible and we can do that in a few ways. Firstly, by looking at ways of flexible working to help those who are able to work but perhaps not able to come into the office or work set hours. Secondly, we need to encourage employees to not feel obliged to come in to work when they are ill as we know a culture of presenteeism is damaging.

“In the longer term employers can address absence by ensuring that they do not instil a culture of long working hours, which ultimately lead to demoralized staff and increased sickness, and by training line managers to be fully able to deal with absence management rather than leaving it to chance.
“A few small actions can make a big difference to absence and I urge employers to ask themselves honestly whether their current process is fit for purpose.”
Commenting on the research and the launch of InteractPlus, John Ritchie, CEO at Ellipse, said: “Unfortunately, many companies’ absence management processes amount to little more than burying their heads in the sand with too much bureaucracy, too little procedure or the lack of any process at all.

“If an employer can’t reliably say where their people are and how they are, then they are failing to deal with the full risks that employee absence and ill health bring to the workplace. The concept behind InteractPlus was to design a first-of-its-kind product to specifically enable employers to address this serious risk shortfall.

“Our research shows that while workplace practices have evolved significantly – in large part due to the adoption of universal technologies – absence management has failed to keep up. This lack of progress frustrates me. With advances in technology benefiting so many areas of work, isn’t it high time organisations embraced it to benefit staff welfare?

“I hope that Sick Notes and InteractPlus will stimulate fresh thinking around how to reduce the welfare, cultural and commercial risks of employee illness and go some way to helping organisations, big and small, improve workplace wellbeing.”