Dealing with sickness absence in the workplace

Dealing with sickness absence in the workplace

Sickness absence can be caused by various different things, it can consist of an employee’s general physical condition,  conditions at the employees works, including health and safety standards, levels of stress, and harassment and bullying.  Family or emotional problems can also play a huge part as can mental health issues other than just stress or anxiety.

The affect this has on companies can be immense and we need to understand how and why this happens and how we can combat it, not only for company productivity but as a duty of care to our employees and their mental well being.

Whilst most companies are more than aware of the direct costs of sickness absence, there are many smaller companies that haven’t really thought about sickness and how it can affect their company.  Direct costs of sickness absence of course include having to find temporary cover and having to pay more staff in overtime, but what about indirect costs?  These can include lower productivity which can make company deadlines unobtainable, therefore leading to lower profit margins and poorly motivated staff.  Sometimes staff can feel that their workload has increased to such a level that they are making mistakes and feel overwhelmed, undertrained, devalued – or a combination of all of these.  It can also have a huge impact on morale and a sense of unfairness if the same staff continue to have short term absences without any management intervention, whilst others rarely miss a day off.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Health and Wellbeing report for 2018 showed that stress and mental ill-health are particular causes for concern.

According to their report, the main causes of sickness are:

  • Minor illnesses – More than three-quarters (81%) of organisations reported that minor illnesses such as colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines were the most common form of short-term absence within their organisation.
  • Back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries – Back pain and musculoskeletal injuries such as neck strains and repetitive strain injury were cited as common causes of both short and long-term sickness for both manual and non-manual workers.
  • Stress-related illness is now only topped by acute medical conditions such as cancer or heart attacks as the biggest cause of long-term absence in the UK, with nearly 40% of organisations reporting an increase over the past year. The CIPD’s report includes heavy workloads, organisational changes and job insecurity as among the top causes of stress. Non-work factors such as family and relationship problems and financial issues are also contributing to people’s stress levels.
  • Recurring medical conditions – Recurring medical conditions such as asthma, angina and allergies are among the top causes of short-term absence, but can also lead to longer periods off too. According to the CIPD, businesses who reported an increase in both stress-related absence and mental ill-health also saw a rise in presenteeism, where an employee turns up to work but is not at their most productive. Coming into work when sick can also mean employees take longer to recover and are at greater risk of making mistakes. They also referenced the emergence of ‘leaveism’ – where employees use allocated time off, such as annual leave, to work or if they are unwell, or working outside contracted hours.
  • Home/family responsibilities – Caring responsibilities remain among the top causes of short-term absence for almost a third of organisations. Though more studies need to be carried out, those businesses that allow flexible working are less likely to report employees taking ‘illegitimate’ time off sick for family reasons.
  • Mental ill-health – According to the CIPD, more than half (55%) of organisations have noted an increase in reported mental health problems such as anxiety and depression among employees in the past 12 months.
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So how can we manage this and offer prevention?

The ‘return to work interview’ is one of the best methods of absence management.  Not only does it establish a tone of expectation and responsibility, it also gives the employee the opportunity to talk and be welcomed back to the workplace and discuss any fears or worries they may have, as well providing an opportunity for employers to check on the wellbeing of their employees before they return to their normal duties – e.g. if they are on medication will they be safe to work heavy duty equipment or drive? Will they be able to undertake their full range of duties? Should they gradually increase their hours over a number of days or weeks?

Communication is key to helping employees back to work, especially in instances of long-term sickness. You must consider the type of communication or contact to use. For example over the phone is an obvious one, as is email, but a more personal approach, if appropriate, could be to meet at an employees home or neutral ground.  It can be very daunting for an employee to return to work after along absence. They may feel anxious, out of the loop and also worry what they have missed in training, which could effect their self esteem.

Stress is not an illness but it can make you ill.  Recognising this early on by offering stress surveys is an excellent way to identify issues and engage with staff to mitigate and eliminate stressors wherever possible.  HSE proposes using a free questionnaire based on these six areas (Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role, Change). This questionnaire is a management tool used to indicate the degree to which employees might be feeling stressed with guidance for employers on how to engage with staff to proactively take action.

Occupational health is a specialist branch of medicine that focuses on the physical and mental wellbeing of employees in the workplace. The aim of occupational health is to prevent work-related illness and injury by: encouraging safe working practices; ergonomics (studying how you work and how you could work better). This service can also provide reactive advice and guidance to assist employers with long term and short term sickness to help people back to work through graduated return plans or job adjustment recommendations.

If all of the above are considered an implemented appropriately, then a happier and more productive workplace will ensue.

For more information on how Centric HR can help you manage sickness absence in the workplace contact us here or telephone: 033 660567

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Sandra Berns

Centric HR was founded by Sandra Berns, a confident and versatile Human Resources and Organisational Development Practitioner with 25 years demonstrable experience and a Fellow of the CIPD. Sandra has both Operational and Strategic HR expertise across Public and Private sectors and has assisted senior teams in meeting challenging workforce objectives in many corporate environments.