Is Your Employee Really Ill?

Employee illness

Before the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the United Kingdom in the spring of 2020, employee illness was causing the loss of an estimated 141.4 million working days, equating to 4.4 days per worker, per year. These figures, measured in 2018[1], indicate costs to the economy that run to millions, but costs of employee illness to individual businesses are far more complex.

It is clear there is a direct correlation between staff absence and a reduction in overall productivity for the business in question. After all, staff cannot make meaningful contributions if they are not in attendance. But the impact of staff absence resonates on a much deeper level than that. Staff absence is disruptive to both workflows, and to other personnel. Absence on the part of one individual invariably results in greater pressure on the colleagues of that employee as they work to compensate for their missing team member. Over time, this can result in damage to staff morale, which further impacts productivity. This additional pressure on staff that are attending work can lead to a decline in their health and wellbeing, resulting in increased genuine staff absences, and an even greater impact on productivity. Examining the wider context reveals that damaged morale and reduced productivity leads to reputational damage to the business that is long lasting and difficult to repair. For these reasons, staff absence is a very serious issue, and must be dealt with accordingly by senior management.

It is also a sensitive issue, though. Staff illness, while problematic for the business, is usually legitimate and the wellbeing of the workforce must always be the priority for any organisation. Workforce wellbeing is best achieved with a healthy workplace, where staff feel valued and trusted, and this is the type of environment in which the incidence of fake staff illness is likely to be minimised. This can be a challenging balance to strike. However healthy your workplace is, though, there are always instances of staff absence that raise suspicion and, in light of the potential damage this issue can cause, it is vital to have a plan of action in place.

Distinguishing between genuine and fake illness leading to absence

When a member of staff is absent due to illness, it is important for the business to determine the veracity of that claim. This is because genuine illness must be handled according to the absence management policy of the business, while illnesses that are faked to facilitate absence should trigger a disciplinary process. For some team members, it may be easy to figure out which scenario applies when their track record is taken into consideration. For others, closer examination may be required, to quell suspicion and allay concerns that the staff member might be claiming sick pay while not being sick at all. There are two questions that can help distinguish between genuine and fake illness causing absence:

Is there a pattern?

Patterns of absence may relate to the frequency, or the context. If a staff member is usually absent on a Friday or a Monday, this may raise suspicions that their intention is to simply have a long weekend. If the absence of a staff member coincides with an event in which they are known to have been interested, or with a period of annual leave that they previously requested, this may indicate falsehood regarding their stated ill health. Those are perhaps the worst-case scenarios, because they suggest that the staff member is lying for personal gain at the expense of the business. Not all staff absence patterns reflect such situations, however. Sometimes the absence of a staff member may regularly coincide with the scheduling of a particularly challenging work task. While this is still problematic, it is a situation that can be addressed through enhanced training and support, since the staff member is clearly overwhelmed.

  • Do colleagues have evidence of fake illness?

In some cases, colleagues of the absent staff member may wish to provide context to the situation by sharing information they have. This could be in the form of social media posts or anecdotal evidence, indicating that the staff member is actually in good health. This type of situation is clearly difficult in terms of management. Other team members may become resentful of the staff member if they believe the absence is fake, due to the fact that they are left to pick up the slack. Other interpersonal politics may be involved, too, which may just as easily be contributing to the staff absence as it is to the sharing of evidence by colleagues. This means it is vital to take the motivations of the reporting staff into consideration when examining presented evidence.

It is imperative, in all circumstances, that the situation be handled sensitively and with the utmost discretion. Failure to do so where the illness proves to be genuine can leave the business open to legal action.

Recourse available to business where suspicions of fake illness remain

When initial enquiries have been conducted and suspicions remain, there are several options available for businesses, in terms of positive action.

  • Request medical evidence – In the U.K, employment law regarding Statutory Sick Pay dictates that employees can self-certificate for work absences of seven days or fewer. ‘Fit notes’ – formerly known as ‘sick notes’ – from a doctor or other medical professional are generally requested for absences lasting longer than seven days but, where frequent, short absences are occurring, an employer can request medical evidence of an ongoing issue. This request must be made to the employee in question, and it is for them to decide whether to share this personal information with their employer. The ease and speed with which such evidence is forthcoming can relate to the veracity of the staff member’s claim of illness, although it cannot be seen as definitive proof of falsehood.
  • Conduct return-to-work interviews

The simple act of conducting return-to-work interviews can often serve as a deterrent to fake illness, particularly when this process is communicated to staff regularly as part of corporate policy. This is because staff are then aware of the fact that they will have to answer questions about their absence in a face-to-face situation, as a matter of course. Such interviews can also prove useful in determining any underlying workplace issues that may be contributing to patterns of absence, enabling remedial action to be taken to improve the working conditions.

  • Further discreet investigation

Once all other avenues have been exhausted and suspicions remain, further investigation is warranted to protect commercial interests. However, absolute discretion is required while maintaining full adherence to data privacy law. This means that, when hiring a Private Investigation firm, only reputable, accredited organisations should be considered. The data protection legislation is in place to protect the interests of the employee, but adhering to these laws protects the commercial interests of the business, and its stakeholders.

Private Investigation of staff absence

Employees have specific rights to privacy, protected by the Information Commissioner’s Office through the Employment Practices Code[2]. Among other areas of data protection, this relates to the use of covert surveillance as a method of gathering evidence of fake illness and determines that a very narrow range of justifications warrant such action. It also determines that, where such action is taken, the private information gathered can only be used in specific ways. Data privacy law is necessarily complex and challenging, and requires that full assessments of risk, reason, and outcome be undertaken before any investigative methods are deployed. This means that those cases of staff absence that do require Private Investigation call for the use of proven experts in the field.

OpSec Solutions is a fully accredited Private Investigation firm, holding memberships with the Association of British Investigators, the Professional Investigators Network, and the Institute of Professional Investigators. Moreover, the organisation has full registration with the Information Commissioner’s Office – proving that the OpSec team operates in an entirely legal and ethical manner, in full alignment with data protection legislation and regulations.

The whole of the U.K is covered by the OpSec Solutions operation, with offices located in both London and Manchester, and a network of Private Investigators distributed across the country. This enables the organisation to provide a swift response to any case, utilising detailed local knowledge to get to the heart of the matter quickly and efficiently. Investigation results are comprehensive and thorough and are presented in the form of irrefutable, court admissible evidence. This approach can often serve to resolve cases long before they reach the stage of court proceedings, which reduces costs to your business in the long term. Using a team drawn from military, police, and corporate backgrounds, OpSec Solutions can provide discreet and confidential investigatory services to businesses concerned about suspicious and unresolved staff absence. With cutting edge technology, a wealth of experience, and the resources to provide bespoke services that are tailored to your exact requirements, OpSec Solutions can provide the peace of mind that your business needs to move forward. Contact OpSec Solutions today to find out more.


[1] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket/2018

[2] https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1066/employment_practice_code_supplementary_guidance.pdf

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