Treating the symptoms

It’s worth realising that a pattern of absence can simply be a symptom of an underlying disorder

Treating the symptoms

With winter only just starting to recede, the coughs-and-sniffles season is probably still fresh in most employer’s minds, meaning a good deal of enterprises will be reviewing the efficacy of their current absence-management policies. It’s no overstatement that absences can have a massive impact on a business’s profitability. “Unexpected absences can affect business productivity and profits,” comments Lara Morgan, founder of business advice and frameworks resource Company Shortcuts. “If they become a regular occurrence they may affect morale and motivation.”

It’s worth crunching the numbers and seeing just how much an empty desk can cost an employer. “If you’ve got somebody who’s off sick – let’s say the average salary in the UK is about £23,000 – that works out at about £100 a day,” says Andrew Noble, managing director of occupational health provider Health Management. “That’s the average cost.” Just having an employee off for a week can end up costing an enterprise £500 and this is why it’s worth being proactive and investing in addressing absence rather than taking the cost on the chin. Noble explains that establishing clear policies and making use of a service like Health Management’s might only cost a fraction of this and yet can help prevent weeks of costly absence due to poor management.

One of the first things to appreciate about absence is that, while you can’t prevent illness and unscheduled sick leave, you can minimise its negative impact. “Half of an effective absence-management policy is having a clear and consistent approach to managing absence and cracking down on those who might be taking advantage of sick-pay policies,” says Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). However, she’s quick to point out these non-genuine absences are receding. “This year, employers are saying they’ve seen a decrease in non-genuine absences, like the typical hangover days and duvet days, which is really reassuring.”

Many businesses are wising up to the idea that data is their best friend but, while enterprises are often quick to use data to manage customer relationships, they might be slower to use the same approach to manage areas such as absence. “By implementing a common practice for recording sick days, you can glean key data,” comments Morgan. Looking at the days lost to sickness, frequency of individuals’ absences and absences by team and department can help build up a wider picture and identify any systemic problems. “This may help you detect and tackle any underlying issues such as workplace bullying.”

This is where absences can actually prove to be a useful tool, as they can be symptomatic of deeper problems. “Illness is just one of 20 factors of why people go off sick,” Noble comments. “It’s not always why they go off sick but it’s the reason they use.” While it can be tempting to view repeated cases of absence in isolation from the wider business, looking at the broader picture can help to address root causes. “The way to distill out what’s going on is by using a clinician who specialises in occupational health to identify the underlying cause of absence,” he continues.

Identifying these problems can be vital as the true extent of the problem can easily be masked. Last month, a survey by the mental health charity Mind revealed that almost a fifth of employees have taken time off due to stress – but 90% of those that did gave a different reason for their absence. The CIPD’s Miller explains that in the last few years, workplace stress has rapidly become the most common reason for individuals taking time off work. “Acute medical conditions like heart attacks, cancer and strokes used to be top of that list but now they’ve been knocked down,” she says. “Along with stress going up, mental ill health has also gone up the charts, which is very worrying.”

Health Management has also seen a huge rise in the number of mental-health-related absences. The occupational provider looks after 1.8 million individuals, representing approximately 10% of the working population. “40% of cases that we deal with involve mental health,” Noble explains. “That is the predominant illness category and a lot of that is essentially disguised.” This means that the cases an employer is aware of could simply be the tip of the iceberg, with the true extent of the problem going unreported. He continues: “If there was one area in terms of wellness strategies and health promotion in the workplace one should focus on, it’s helping managers know how to recognise stress and deal with it appropriately.”

Of course, illness isn’t just an issue when it’s causing empty desks – even when an employee is firmly installed at their station, it doesn’t mean their ill health isn’t causing problems. In the current economic climate, presenteeism has become a real issue, capturing its fair share of column inches and causing real costs for enterprises. “From a business point of view, if they’re coming into work without having that down time, people are less productive and research has shown that they are prone to making costly mistakes,” says Miller. Culturally, this can be as indicative of underlying problems as repeated or prolonged absence. She continues: “Again, presenteeism can also be an outward sign of something deeper, like anxiety or stress, and can contribute to mental-health problems.”

“Essentially, presenteeism is people working under pressure, stressed, who are not working efficiently,” says Noble. Ultimately, a lot of the root causes of presenteeism and unauthorised absence can be one and the same – we have simply seen a shifting from one cultural response to another. Fortunately, this means that both issues can be, in part, tackled with a single, united approach. “If you’ve got positive engagement with staff, people are working in a trusted environment, you will have better productivity, better health and better attendance at work,” Noble says.

Morgan also feels that management of the underlying issues offers an excellent way to deal with absence. “A strong and positive company culture is perhaps the single most powerful way to ensure minimal disruption through absenteeism,” she says. Staff who are dissatisfied or who don’t feel engaged are far more likely to feel higher levels of stress or have an increased rate of absence. “Creating a friendly environment, where staff feel valued as part of a team and where flexible, family-friendly policies are in place is likely to prove more effective at keeping attendance rates high.

“A lot rests with the culture of the organisation and I think that’s something deeper to be addressed throughout the whole of the organisation,” says Miller. “You need a clear and coherent approach and clear communication from management as well as HR.” When viewed in this way, it becomes clear that dealing with absence on a case-by-case basis is meaningless if you are not also treating the body politic. As she concludes: “It’s a whole business issue.” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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