‘Sickie confessions’: Funny, fantastical and downright depressing REAL stories behind employee absenteeism
AdviserPlus asked staff from a diverse range of sectors to ‘confess all’ regarding sickies they’d thrown – and the results make for remarkable reading for HR professionals.
Our probing uncovered a staff member who faked photos of her ‘grandmother’s’ 100th birthday to justify her day off – despite the fact grandma was already deceased. In addition to a serial ‘sickie’ offender whose most outlandish excuse was a feather in the eye.
An employer even came forward to express her view that sickies are an employee’s right – a right she brazenly exerted before starting her own business.
The excuses people gave were regularly amusing, sometimes fantastical and too often depressing – highlighting issues of inflexibility and unhappiness in the workplace.
From the call centre worker who was left racked with guilt due to the reaction of her colleagues when she invented a burglary to get the day off, to the tale of a dead foot-and-mouth infected goat leading to an impromptu day out of the office – they make for great reading.
But behind the sniggers, some more serious messages lurk for HR leaders.
Pat Ashworth, Director of AdviserPlus Learning Solutions, said having the data to spot, challenge and manage trends is key to avoiding a staffing crisis caused at sickie pressure points, such as the festive season when partying and personal commitments can peak.
This is particularly important in sectors where boots-on-the-ground workers are needed in the workplace, restricting opportunities to offer flexibility such as remote and work-from-home opportunities, which in themselves are likely to reduce sickies.
She said: “The patterns of the past predict the patterns of the future. It’s all about being prepared to do something about them.
“Without the data, you are going to be in the same situation year-on-year, not identifying the patterns.
“Good data allows you to see if a particular team suffers a lot of absences at a specific time of year – the festive season, for example, where holiday requests can’t always be fulfilled. It also allows you to drill down further and see if a particular line manager has a lot of absences in their team, or if a particular individual has a lot of absences and whether those follow a Monday/Friday pattern, for example.
“That allows a challenge and support approach. It might be that a particular manager is not conducting ‘return-to-work’ interviews, or the reason for absences is a manager’s coercive behaviour. It might be the manager who needs support and training.
“Once you have identified a pattern you can speak to individuals and ask ‘what can we do to support you to improve attendance at work and what do you think you can do to improve your attendance?’”
Accepting that the unpredictability of life and people – where no company can ever entirely manage-out unplanned absence – is also important, according to Pat.
“Good manpower planning is essential,” she said. “You have got to build in some level of tolerance. You can have the best company in the world and these things will happen. An effective resource plan will build that tolerance in.”
Confessions from the front line: Employees reveal why they threw sickies and the excuses they used
Employer Shadia Al Hili was brazen about sickies before starting her own business
Audacious Shadia Al Hili, 47, of Manchester, is now an employer herself, but it hasn’t changed her attitude to sickies – they’re an ‘absolute must’ she says.
Whilst she endeavours to create a work environment where employees thrive and don’t feel the need to take too many impromptu days off, she accepts that sometimes life just gets in the way of work and believes employers should allow employees to be honest if they need an unplanned day off.
She said: “I think sickie days are an absolute must. Most employers don’t give a hoot – they push you mercilessly sometimes as they need results. Now, I have a strong work ethic, but I’m not your hero.
Before being self-employed if I needed a day off here and there, I took it. Those days are a part of my mental/social needs. Simple.
I would always ask first but if it was a ‘no’, you better believe it was going to be a sickie
“Especially on my birthday or even my kids’ birthdays. I would always ask first but if it was a ‘no,’ you better believe it was going to be a sickie! In fact, I was quite smug in my plans. The worst, and best, example was when I worked as head brow specialist in Harvey Nichols, with its sister company in Harrods.
“The boss refused my request to have my birthday off and booked me in a jam packed day instead – a 9am to 7pm shift – it was as if it was deliberate! She expected me to get the 6.30am train, so I did, but my plans were to have a fabulous day shopping in London. I managed to persuade my pal to come along too. We got to London, found the most gorgeous coffee shop and made the call to work with my excuse.
I told my boss that in the rush of commuters I fell straight on my hand and was now on my way to hospital. I couldn’t do an eyebrow if I couldn’t move my fingers! Promising to keep work informed, my friend and I enjoyed a lovely birthday breakfast and a little browse around the shops. After a leisurely lunch, and before I got on the alcohoI, I phoned work again. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told them. ‘I’m just bruised but heavily bandaged, sorry.’
Then my boss said ‘Shadia, can you not work through the pain?’ This kind of remark only reaffirms my belief that if you want to do something that suits you, do it. In fact It’s necessary. My audacity didn’t end there. My friend and I wanted to have a shop in Knightsbridge, including Harrods! In case we were seen, I bought a DIY bandage from Boots and wrapped two fingers in it, on the ready as evidence.
My friend and I conspired that if I saw anyone from work we’d say we bumped into each other. We proceeded to have a wonderful afternoon just below the floors of where I was supposed to be working. We still laugh about it now, I didn’t get caught.
At Cuzena, where I am the founder, our house rules will never change – you can openly say you need a sickie or a late morning. We advocate you do, so you can talk openly about what you’ve been up to and share a nice part of your life, which makes you enjoy your working life more. Being forced to lie and cough down a phone can result in having two days off where in fact you just needed a little breather to chill in your fat pants at home or a day out with a family member.
Sometimes, rarely though it may be, you just need a day for yourself for your own reasons.
If someone needed a weekly or regular sickie it would be clear to me they were in the wrong job. I’d point out their strengths and invite them to go and do what makes them happy. And your birthday should be a day to remember and do whatever you want and not involve work unless that’s where you would rather be! If you can’t be honest where you work, then be the best you can be so you are missed when you do decide to have a day off from the world and can thoroughly enjoy your sickie. Don’t worry – your workload will still be there when you get back – I promise!”
Carly Thompsett was caught out when she took a sickie to meet Prince Charles
Carly Thompsett, 29, founder of Anaphase Store, based in Cardiff, also now an employer herself, shares that desire for her employees to feel able to be honest with her following her own embarrassing experience of feeling forced into taking a sickie.
She said: “I set up my business through the Prince’s Trust and because of this I was invited to meet Prince Charles so he could meet some young people his charity had helped.
At the time I was still working as an administrator alongside building up my business. I had no holiday left and knew they wouldn’t let me have the day off and wouldn’t care if I told them the reason I needed it.
Only my good friend at work knew I was going. I called in sick then, an hour after I met Prince Charles, my friend said that because the local newspaper was there covering the morning I was in an article and video online! My bosses saw it and called me into a meeting where all I could do was admit I’d been caught out. They weren’t happy and I ended up leaving a few weeks later to concentrate on my business full time.
Now I have employees of my own I try to ensure there is an open-door policy. Things crop up and I don’t want them to ever feel so uncomfortable they can’t tell me the truth.”
‘A sickie possibly saved my life’
Adam Robinson, 36, from Cheshire, said: “When I was working for the New Zealand government I pulled a sickie and it possibly saved my life.
It was the day of the Christchurch earthquake where over 180 died. It happened during what would have been my lunch hour and the shops that I visited every lunchtime without fail, were decimated, so there’s a very strong chance I would have been injured more than the cut feet and bruises I got away with at home.”
Stuart, 30, from Lincolnshire, said: “When I was a teenager I worked in a call centre, but found the work to be uninspiring and the colleagues duller than a sack of potatoes. It’s safe to say that at the time I lacked the respect for income and the privilege of employment.
One morning I got as far as the roundabout just before work when an especially aggressive song teed off from my metal mix CD. I thought ‘screw it’ and went all the way round the roundabout and returned home to call in sick with an illness that kept me under the covers and unable to stop sweating – all total nonsense. I just watched films and played video games. I returned to work four days later due to a neatly placed weekend and thought I had got away with it until I was pulled into a meeting.
Turns out that, as I exited the roundabout, my line manager had waved at me and thought it very curious that I was heading in the wrong direction singing my heart out. Fortunately I got let off with a slap on the wrist.”
‘I got my family and friends to help me fake a 100th birthday party photo’
Niki, 30, of York, said: I faked a (deceased’s) grandma’s 100th birthday to get my trip home over the line when my boss initially said ‘no’ to time off. I had to wheel my family, mate and all her family into a photo with her elderly neighbour as proof of the party!”
An anonymous respondent said: “A teacher colleague had ‘flu’ for the same week three years running. When someone did some digging it turned out she and her hubby had bought a week of timeshare only for the local authority to change the week half term fell in, which meant it clashed, so she had to feign illness!”
Natalie, 37, of Howden in East Yorkshire, said:
I genuinely fell ill with an awful cold on National Pull A Sickie Day for about four years in a row!
Ellie, 30, from Reading, said: “At university, I tried to pick modules that allowed me to avoid public speaking because I’m terrified of it. When I was faced with having to do a presentation, I got so worried I decided I just wasn’t going to go in on the day and felt the only way I could avoid it was by being ‘sick.’
I ended up going out the night before (so I was actually kind of ill!) I did feel bad and was concerned that I would end up having to do it anyway, so avoided the next class too. I was nervous when I did finally return but it wasn’t mentioned – although I did feel like my tutor picked on me a lot more after that.
Looking back, I probably should have just spoken to my tutor about how I was feeling. It would have been helpful to have had some sort of presentation training to help with this – I still get scared now because I have never really got over it.”
‘We had to bury our goat’
Ellen, 36, from Doncaster, said: “When I was a child, our goat ‘Pops’ died and my dad had to take compassionate leave to bury it in our garden as it had been foaming at the mouth at the height of the foot-and-mouth epidemic so the vet couldn’t take it away!”
An anonymous respondent said: “My husband and I went to Amsterdam for the weekend for our anniversary. On Saturday, we had a whole day of sightseeing planned then a reservation at a top restaurant, booked months in advance. But, as we arrived so late on the Friday, we were both knackered by 10am and, by lunchtime, at each other’s throats. The argument continued into the evening and we missed our reservation. I ended up eating falafel at a street vendor in a cocktail dress, alone.
Next morning we were so sad. My husband went out early and got fresh bread and jam and produced the champagne we didn’t drink the night before. Then it came to us – let’s stay another night! We checked with the hotel and they could let us stay in our room. We put new return flights on our credit card. We had a glorious day walking the canals, a picnic in the park and an evening drinking cocktails.
Next morning I set my alarm and texted both our bosses to say that we were sick as a dog having eaten something dodgy on our trip. Then we went for a slap up meal. I was in middle management at the time and my husband was a department head, so it was a bit irresponsible, but probably saved our marriage!”
A respondent who did not want to be named said: “My husband, a junior architect technician at the time, couldn’t get the time off to join me on a freebie trip to Scotland with work so phoned in sick on the Monday. That evening he got the overnight bus from Inverness to Bristol.
It was 15 hours of hell and as the bus was majorly delayed, he had to stash his overnight bag at the bus station and go straight to work on no sleep, white as a sheet and sweaty. As soon as he arrived his boss said ‘You’re clearly still sick! Get home!’ And so he ended up getting a second day to recover!”
I’d run out of illnesses so a fake burglary seemed a good idea at the time
Tracey, of Southampton, said: “Twenty odd years ago when I was about 21 and working as a long term temp in a customer service department, I was always pulling sickies, usually hangover led. I’d run out of illnesses so a fake burglary seemed a good idea at the time. When I went back to the office they’d all had a whip round. I felt absolutely dreadful! No more fibs for me and I left soon after that.”
An anonymous respondent said: “I was running the London Marathon and wanted the day before off. I was working in a call centre type job I dreaded going into and I felt like I needed the time to relax before the marathon.
I asked months beforehand and was told it was too far in advance to book. In the end I called in sick on the day and said I’d had a migraine and needed to rest, but in all honesty I think my employer knew. Given that I’d been plugging the charity I was running for around the office for weeks, I think they decided to let it slide.”
‘The next day my boss commented on how well I looked on TV – oops!’
Jeane, 49, from London, said: “When I worked for the Civil Service years ago I pulled a sickie and went shopping in Oxford Street. On my way home, I saw something going on in a local park. Stopping for a better look I discovered the Queen Mother unveiling a plaque. It was shown on the evening news – complete with me centre stage clutching my Selfridges bags. The next day my boss commented on how well I looked on TV – oops!”
Darryl, 31, of London, said: “While I was at uni I called in sick one night to my pub job. I was hungover, and it was December – wet, dark and cold. I just wanted to be in my warm flat. I said I had cystitis, because who argues with that? Then, before my next shift, I managed to fall over drunk and break my wrist. For some reason, I decided to keep up the cystitis story and said I broke my wrist while going to get med, and slipping in the rain in the car park. I actually went in to tell them face-to-face so they could see my cast!”
‘Feather in his eye’
An anonymous respondent said: “I used to work in the music industry and my colleagues and I had to attend a lot of gigs. Sometimes they were overseas and we’d be flown there by the record company and treated to a rather decadent time – posh hotels, expensive restaurants, and backstage passes.
One particular colleague was notorious for pulling a sickie after these events. The next day he’d invariably have a cold (read: hangover), but sometimes his excuses were a little more far-fetched. One that went down in history was the time he couldn’t come to work because he had a ‘feather in his eye’, which he blamed on the high-end goose down duvet he’d slept under the night before.”
An anonymous respondent, 26, from Leeds, who works in PR, said: “I was once up till 6am on a bender with my old boss. We were both so hungover we agreed to call in sick. I said I was ill, but nobody believed me.”
She told them her grandma was ill. She got loads of sympathy and I got judged so much!
A respondent who didn’t want to be named said: “I once faked a sickie in order to go for a job interview. I described all of my symptoms perfectly and really got into role, describing my scratchy sore throat, banging headache and terrible aching limbs.
My method acting was so successful that the next day I exhibited all of the symptoms described and had to take that day off work too! Got the job though.”
‘I put on a bit of an ill voice’
A 25-year-old, from Peterborough, who works in publishing, said: “At my previous job, last minute holiday wasn’t the easiest to get, partly due to print deadlines, and there was no element of flexible working. I felt I had no choice but to pull a sickie when I went for an interview for a new role.
I said I had a migraine and couldn’t spend time looking at a screen or phone for too long. This was in case they tried to contact me and I didn’t respond (sneaky!). I put on a bit of an ‘ill voice’ and said that I was very tired as couldn’t sleep. I felt really guilty and wished I didn’t have to be so dishonest, I felt bad for even leaving the house!”
Jane, of Lincolnshire, said: “When I was a junior reporter I went out for what was supposed to be a quiet drink after work with a few fellow reporters and the news editor and deputy news editor. A quiet drink turned into lots of drinks and I had to phone in sick to the news editor the following day because I had a massive hangover and was being sick left, right and centre. The news editor was obviously suffering a sore head too, but I think he saw the funny side and I got teased mercilessly for weeks!”
A respondent who did not want to be named said: “About 15 years ago I had a two-week holiday booked in Goa and had exactly ten days annual holiday left to do it, but the flight was due into Manchester at about midnight on a Sunday. I knew I was not going to be in a great condition for work the next day so thought I will just call in sick.
Well, justice for that came when the flight was delayed in Bahrain, then in Cyprus and I did not get into Manchester airport until 9.30am on the Monday morning. I just confessed that I was still at the airport and was not coming in that day. No-one really cared.”
Kirsty, 24, a marketing executive, from Edinburgh, said: “I pulled a sickie at my old job to come for the interview for my current role. I was too embarrassed to tell them I wanted to leave because they’d been so nice letting me transfer there when I relocated a few months before but they were pleased for me when I handed in my notice because my new role allowed me to use my degree.”
‘Be as graphic and gross as possible’
An anonymous respondent said: “A friend of mine once said ‘the best thing you can do when doing a sickie is be as graphic and gross as possible’. They had a number of days off due to ‘stomach upsets’.”
A respondent who didn’t want to be named said: “My friend worked behind the bar at our university nightclub. She was meant to be working one night but wanted to come out with all of us – to said bar! So she needed an excuse that meant she could still go out but couldn’t work. She wrapped her wrist in bandages and said she’d sprained her wrist and couldn’t pull pints. We had a great night!”
A 39-year-old, from King’s Lynn, said: “When I was a rookie reporter I once called in sick with a hangover and claimed it was due to food poisoning or a bug. I wouldn’t have been capable of work as I had to keep running to the toilet to be sick and was probably also very tired. Not my finest moment and to this day I’m still a bit ashamed. So unprofessional!”
An anonymous respondent said: “I’d been out with a few housemates on the Thursday before our work Christmas party on the Friday so I’d called in sick and planned to foresake the work do. A few people text and convinced me I should go though, so I rang my manager and explained I felt better after sleeping and asked if it would it be an issue to attend.
He said he didn’t mind but other team managers may flag it, which they did to the department manager. Luckily I had a good relationship with her. I seem to recall her calling me a ‘cheeky s*&t!’ I think I agreed to do some overtime and it would all be forgotten.”
‘My favourite celebrity was doing a Q&A’
Amy, 30, from Horsham, said: “I pulled a sickie from school once when I was a teenager. My favourite celebrity – Bam Margera, the skateboarder/Jackass star – was hosting a Q&A on the red button on Sky and I knew I couldn’t miss my chance to ask him a question so I feigned illness. I didn’t get caught out but my question also didn’t get through to him – so it wasn’t really worth it!”
Alexa, 29, of York, said: “When I worked in retail, I hated my managers and job so much that I actually considered making the move from beautiful central York to go and work part way up a mountain in a youth hostel in Wales.
Looking back it was pretty extreme and I am really really glad I didn’t, as a month or so later the perfect job just seemed to happen for me right on my doorstep, but I had to pull a sickie in order to drive to Wales and back in a day for the interview.
I did actually get offered the new job, but zero internet and very little phone signal unless I was willing to pop down into the closest town actually seemed a little more unbearable than my old job did, so I politely declined!”
Want help to understand absence in your organisation? Contact us to see what we can do – and download our free eBook for a detailed look at the topic of absenteeism.