Workplace health and wellbeing: When it’s good to be below average

When it comes to staff absence, it's not your employees that are sick, it's actually your business culture itself.

Workplace health and wellbeing: When it’s good to be below average

When it comes to staff absence, it’s not your employees that are sick, it’s actually your business culture itself. 

With stress levels increasing by 113% over the past two years amongst the workforce, it’s time for businesses to tackle the causes of absence and presenteeism at the root. Business leaders must build a culture centred around the importance of absence. Actively promoting the importance of absence and taking time to switch-off will improve employee wellbeing and ensure that staff absence levels stay below average.

Don’t believe me? You can’t argue with the statistics. 

It’s not as simple as that

Poor culture will manifest itself in absence with an obvious and immediate cost to productivity. But absence also has a ripple effect, from driving down trust levels to reduced innovation and employee engagement.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s been announced that the UK sickness absence rate has fallen to 1.8% in 2020; this is the lowest recorded level since the data time series began in 1995. However, our data found that managing absence in the right way can help to further drop absence rates by up to 100% below this average. In this case, it’s good to be below average. 

So, if everyone is seeing lower absence rates, then we must be doing something right and there’s nothing to worry about?  Actually, it’s not as simple as keeping sickness and absence levels low to keep productivity and wellbeing high.

Instead it’s about focussing on having the right kind of absence at a manageable level and in a culture where employees know it’s OK to not be OK. Businesses must strike a balance between low absence rates and a healthy absence culture to minimise this effect. When absence levels are low, businesses are presented with a unique opportunity to evaluate their existing processes and build on lessons learnt. 

Promoting healthy absence 

The CIPD says that 24% of workers would take sickness as annual leave to avoid having to answer questions. If your employees don’t feel able to take time off, be honest about their reason for being absent, or even feel there’s a general lack of support around sickness, absence will become an ongoing problem rather than a strategic opportunity for growth. 

Instead, businesses must remove the taboo that exists around absence and build a culture of reciprocal trust. Policies need to be developed which align with the businesses values, purpose and goals. Hardworking employees are certainly an asset for a business – but there’s a difference between hard working and over working. Champion a culture of hard work amongst employees by all means, but not at the cost of creating a negative perception of absence. We all need a break from time to time, and that’s OK.

Salesforce announced that teams that scored in the top 20% for engagement see a 41% reduction in absenteeism and 59% less employee turnover. This is the absence ripple effect in action. A culture of mutual trust and understanding will boost engagement. A workforce that feels supported and understood will be motivated to be productive and do well in their roles. 

When working from home has minimised everyday illnesses and it’s easier to work when sick, it might not be all that surprising to see some of the lowest absence rates on record. But, as we enter a period of recovery and rebuilding and redefining the workplace culture becomes a focus once again, the decisions made today could make the difference between staying low and seeing absence skyrocketing to record levels once again. 

Don’t be misled by the false sense of security created by these low absence rates. Now is the time to prioritise positive absence and strive to stay below average. 

Matt Jenkins
Matt Jenkins

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