The Call Are you sure you're too sick to work? Tell it to the nurse your boss is paying to call you. That's what some folks have to do to cadge a sick day in the United Kingdom. Prompted by rising absenteeism, 20 UK employers have signed on with health care company Cigna UK's absence management program to have nurses check on sick employees at home, said Sharon Lyons, managing director of Cigna UK. Nurses in the three-year-old program make about 1,800 calls a week to employees and their employers from call centers in Glasborough, Scotland. Five or more days of uninterrupted absence or three absences in six months generally trigger a checkup call, said Cathy Hodson, a call center nurse.

The Suspicion According to a survey this year by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the average UK employee was absent 7.2 days in 2003 -- up from 6.8 days in 2002. Employers surveyed believed that 15 percent of sickness absence -- costing the economy nearly 1.75 billion pounds (about $3 billion) per year -- was not genuine, said CBI. UK companies lost 11.6 billion pounds (about $21 billion) last year to employee sick days.

The Reception Most genuinely sick employees, Hodson said, appreciated the calls, in which nurses sometimes offer care advice or ask about unhealthful work situations; only the fakers became defensive, she said. In a Cigna UK survey earlier this year, 83 percent of managers who signed up for the service said they felt it had helped manage employee absence. The company said it had no other data yet by which to measure the program's impact.

The Message Being out sick is okay, assured Lyons, provided you're resting and getting care so you can return to the grind soon. What's not okay? "Being off sick and not doing anything to get back [to work]," she said. Would the program play here? An Office of Personnel Management spokesperson declined to speculate.

-- Samantha Ganey