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How to Address Sick Leave Abuse in the Workplace

Updated on January 8, 2013
ChrisMcDade8 profile image

Christine McDade is a Human Resources professional (PHR & SHRM-CP) with over 18 years in the public sector.

Who wouldn't rather be fishing?
Who wouldn't rather be fishing? | Source

When an employee calls in to say that he/she will not be coming into work, management must make arrangements to cover this unscheduled absence. Picking up the workload for an absent co worker is something that becomes very common for employees who have an abuser of sick leave in the workplace. The employee who calls in every time there is a three day weekend or on the day before they are about to go on a vacation becomes very predictable to others. These folks work like clockwork as they display patterns of absenteeism that causes extra work for those dependable employees who come to work regularly. Employees who abuse sick leave become a real downer to co workers in the workplace. If mangers fail to address such abusive behavior, employees will become very disenchanted in the workplace.

What is Sick Leave?

Many employers offer a form of paid leave or personal leave to employees as a benefit. This time off is paid leave that is to be used by employees for the purpose of addressing a temporary health issue. For employees who are ill, being allowed to stay home for a day or two can be just what the doctor ordered. This day off to rest or recuperate without losing pay can be quite attractive to the employee. Since it is quite a challenge to balance the demands of work and family life, the ease of being able to take time off from work to address such a disruption can be quite a perk. Employees who use this time to take a break to feel better do appreciate having paid time for such occasions. Furthermore, employers want employees to use this time to take care of themselves to feel better.

The Call-in Game

Employees who demonstrate patterns of excessive use of sick time through call ins demand the attention of management. Some common characteristics are:

  • The "Players" Some employees become really good at the call-in game. The occasional throat clearing or the forced coughing in the presence of the boss is performed to set up for that eventual call that communicates that he/she will not be in because they are sick.
  • The "Bridge Makers" Some employees become expert engineers as they consistently build long weekends out of normal or holiday weekends. They call in on that preceding Friday, for example, to make an even longer weekend.
  • The "Actors" Some employees can create a story and then act out the motions in a manner that deserves some kind of award. The web of lies that are spun for the sake of a a sick day can be very detailed. These employees often get tripped up in one of their own lies just because they forgot a detail or two. Management does not even have to go out of their way with these folks because they usually blow their own falsehood.
  • The "Troubled" Souls Some employees find that calling in sick is a good way to strike back at the employer who has just provided feedback about their performance. A written disciplinary action may spark the employee to want to take a day off to consider the disciplinary action that was taken against them.
  • The "Entitled" Folks Some employees choose to just use the sick leave time because it belongs to them. For these employees, sick leave is an entitlement that they want to use because they earned it. They might not be sick, but they are going to use it because they can.

Recognizing patterns in workplace behavior is beneficial to understanding why employees take off from work in the way they do. While some of the descriptors seem somewhat comical or petty in nature, they may be indicative of a bigger problem. Some employees might have a serious health issue that he/she is not required to share with the supervisor due to HIPPA protections. Morale issues, personal problems (divorce, financial issues, loss of a loved one, etc.) and interpersonal issues in the workplace might cause an employee to call in sick unexpectedly.

Loyalty and Dependability

When employees consistently call into work when they are truly not ill, one can certainly start to deduce some serious concerns about the employee's loyalty to the employer as well as their questionable dependability as an employee. While most consider showing up to work on time as one of the most basic of workplace tasks, coming to work becomes a challenge for troubled employees who are unhappy in the workplace. Managers must make changes in scheduling and workloads to handle the loss in manpower so that the work still gets done. In other words, the show must go on despite the absence of these employees.

The creation and implementation of workplace policies will assist management with addressing excessive sick leave usage.
The creation and implementation of workplace policies will assist management with addressing excessive sick leave usage. | Source

What's a manager to do?

The only real way to address abusive sick leave usage is to hold the employees accountable for their actions. Employees who consistently call for an unscheduled day off become a real liability because they no longer can be considered dependable. Sick leave abusers also create morale issues for those who work side by side with them. Resentment can build over time in the workplace and spread like a cancer when the bad behavior goes unchecked by management. There are ways to address excessive sick time users. Consider the following management options:

  • performance appraisal - Conducting regular performance appraisals will provide an opportunity to formally document the issues that would have been addressed throughout the evaluation period. Appraisals should never have surprises in the way the performance is documented. Rather, the appraisal should be a reiteration of the supervisor's expectations, including the expectation to improve sick leave usage.
  • disciplinary action - When the sick leave abuse does not improve, supervisors may choose to take a disciplinary action through a verbal or written counseling. Disciplinary actions should only be taken after some consideration is given to the employee and the circumstances that may be causing the employee to call in excessively. Employees should also be made aware of the employer's sick leave policy. If the employee utilized FMLA during the use of this sick leave, they should not be disciplined as this time off is protected.
  • policies and procedures - Employers must periodically update the employee handbook to be sure policies and procedures are current. Communicating these policies to employees is imperative to make sure employees understand the employer's stance on proper use of sick leave.
  • FMLA - If an employee qualifies for FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, it should be applied to the absences accordingly. Qualifying employers should post employee rights under FMLA so that all employees can learn about this federal regulation. Employers should designate employee absences as FMLA to comply with this important law.

Closing Thoughts

Sick leave is a benefit that many employers provide to employees to help them get over temporary illnesses. Whether under the care of a doctor or just needing to stay home to nurse a cold, employees will from time to time have a need to take a day or two off to care of themselves. When, however, employees show signs of abusing this leave, the rest of the workplace suffers. After repeated examples of this behavior, co workers start to resent the employee whose excessive call ins brings additional work to others in the workplace. Failure to address the abuser's behavior will cause serious morale issues for those who feel dumped on by the so called sick employee. By implementing a leave policy, documenting patterns of sick leave abuse, and clearly communicating the expectations to the employee, the employer will be able to successfully tackle sick leave abuse.

How do you rank with other employees who call in sick?

Have you ever called in sick when you really were not sick?

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    • ChrisMcDade8 profile imageAUTHOR

      Christine McDade 

      6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Thanks for your comments. Every industry must have their own challenges when it comes to personal leave days. You bring up good points about teachers.

    • Rosie writes profile image

      Rosie writes 

      6 years ago from Virginia

      I enjoyed your hub, but am left wondering if most employers give a limited number of sick days. Teachers get a limited number of sick days each year. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the job, many teachers use up their sick leave as they are truly sick. There are also other deterrents, such as having to write detailed sub-plans that can take an hour or more to do, and in many schools, teachers are expected to arrange for their own subs as well. Voted up and interesting.

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile imageAUTHOR

      Christine McDade 

      6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Thanks for the comments. Addressing sick leave is a touchy issue as there is a need to be flexible with employees while still meeting the goals of the work at hand. Mental health days can be very beneficial as we all can use a break from time to time. I appreciate your feedback about this issue.

    • davidlivermore profile image

      David Livermore 

      6 years ago from Bakersfield, California, United States

      This is such a touchy subject in my workplace.

      I believe people should call in sick when they are sick, but not when they have a headache or a sniffle. I mostly call in sick when I have the flu, or something serious that I could not physically do a good job. Unfortunately last year that was the care for me.

      Now, I do believe in "mental health" days. Sometimes someone isn't physically sick, but mentally needs a day away from work where they were normally there. While you can't call in sick for that, I know sometimes people need it.


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