What is sickness absence?

Sickness absence is an instance of an employee missing work due to sickness, whether it’s short-term or long-term. 

Any time any member of your team misses work, it’s going to cost your business money. But have you ever wondered just how much each individual sick day costs you?  

The Office for National Statistics estimates that around 141.4 million working days are lost a year due to sickness absence in the UK. According to the CIPDthis equates to 5.8 days per employee per year. CIPD figures also estimate that it costs UK companies £554 per employee, per year. So cumulatively, could account to around £18 billion a year in lost productivity. 

Your employees will get ill, and they will need to take time off to recover. Some level of sickness absence is inevitable, so it’s a problem you need to learn to manage. It’s your job to reduce the impact that this inevitable influence on your business. 

The impacts on your business

We’ve already touched upon the financial impact on your business. But where do these costs come from? It’s a combination of statutory sick pay, occupational sick pay, and the costs of the measures you might take to cover for the absent worker. These could include paying certain members of your team to work overtime, and in the event of long-term illness, hiring temporary cover.

These are the physical, quantifiable costs of sickness absence. And the more employees you have, the more it’s going to cost you each year. But beyond these figures, it will impact your business in a number of indirect ways that are harder to measure, but which are no less damaging in the long-term. 

1. Lower productivity

If any member of any team misses work, projects can quickly grind to a halt. You’ll soon develop a long backlog of tasks. There’ll be a general feeling that nothing ever gets done. This can be terrible for team morale. And think of all the steps you’ll have to take to pick up the slack. Some members of your team might have to work extra hard, which could lead to resentment in the long-term.  

2. Employee wellbeing

It’s unfair and unhealthy to expect employees to work overtime to cover for absent members of the team. This can lead to stress and burnout, which could ultimately result in more absence and further damages to productivity. That’s one of the worst things about sickness absence: It’s the sort of problem which, if you don’t address it, can quickly spiral out of control as it snowballs into multiple additional problems. 

3. Unhealthy company culture

How will the workplace feel if it feels like there’s always at least one member of the team missing? How will your employees feel if they know that every project they start will be marred by delays and compromises? And how will they feel if they know that you expect them to routinely go above and beyond to cover for absent workers?  

All of this will lead to a company culture defined by stress, resentment, overwork, frustration, and burnout. It will make your company an unpleasant place to work. So along with the low morale and productivity, you could see a high staff turnover.  

Impacts of sick leave in different sectors

In many ways, sickness absence affects all UK companies in the same way: Along with the direct costs, there are multiple indirect costs that can soon spiral into much deeper problems. 

But in some sectors, it can cause certain additional problems: 

Retail sector

Sickness absence can lead to increased stress levels, and stressed people are generally not happy people. Success in retail largely depends on delivering exceptional customer service, and it’s hard to meet and exceed customer needs when you’re feeling stressed, demotivated, frustrated and overworked. 

Finance sector

A recent study found that the financial sector is the second most stressful sector in the UK. One reason why working in finance is so stressful is that the stakes are often incredibly high – a single mistake can cost clients millions. Sickness absence can lead to more stress in the workplace, and stress can cause you to make more mistakes. In the financial sector, these mistakes will be extremely costly. 

Healthcare sector

If mistakes are costly in the financial sector, in the medical sector they can literally mean life or death. Many studies show that stressed doctors tend to make more mistakes. So is it an exaggeration to say that sickness absence in the medical sector costs lives? 

Legal sector

A 2014 Law Society survey revealed that 95% of employees in the legal sector have experienced stress as a result of their job. This is another sector in which the stakes are extremely high. If sickness absence can lead to more stress, and stress can lead to repeated absence, then the legal sector might be reaching a crisis point. 

Top causes

According to the latest CIPD Health and Well-being at Work Survey, the top causes of sickness absence in the UK are, in order: 

1. Stress and mental ill-health

Some estimate that mental ill-health could result in 91 million days of absence each year, which could cost UK businesses up to £15 billion in productivity. The problem could be more prevalent than you think. According to the mental health charity Mind, at least one in six workers is currently facing mental health problems.

2. Musculoskeletal injuries

You might think that musculoskeletal injuries are more common in sectors involving lots of manual work. But even in a comparatively-safe office environment, bad posture and inadequate health and safety training could contribute to many short and long-term problems each year.

3. Acute medical conditions

We’ll all have to face acute medical conditions at some point in our lives. This could be a more serious physical injury that requires an extended period of recuperation or a serious long-term condition such as cancer or heart disease. And of course, there’s always the chance that a global pandemic could strike… 

4. Minor illness

Colds and flu tend to make the rounds throughout the year, though they’re more likely to strike in the colder months. Though even at the height of summer, it’s not unusual to hear about a “nasty bug” going around. Plus, some people are simply prone to headaches, migraines, stomach upsets, and other conditions. So it should come as no surprise that minor illnesses account for more than 80% of short-term sickness absence cases. 

Head here to read more about the most common causes of increased employee absenteeism – which includes some external causes.

How to manage sickness absence

Your aim is not to eliminate, but to manage it. Your employees will need to take time off to cope with illness and injury throughout the year. Your job isn’t to ensure that nobody ever gets sick or injured again. It’s to do all you can to lessen the impact it has on your people and your company. 

Here are SIX ways to help you manage sickness absence.

1. Combat leaveism and presenteeism

Earlier we touched upon how sickness absence can lead to an unhealthy culture in your organisation. Leaveism and presenteeism are two symptoms of unhealthy company culture, and they are both products of an unhealthy attitude to it. 

Leaveism is where employees use their holidays to work. It’s an unintended consequence of “hero culture” when employees volunteer to go above and beyond to cover for absent members of the team. But working too hard for too long is terrible for stress-levels, and for mental health in general. Employees need to take a break, now and then. So “hero culture” in your company is not something to aim for. 

Presenteeism is where employees still show up to work, even when they’re ill. Obviously, you shouldn’t encourage this behaviour. If employees choose to work when they should be recovering, then their short-term sickness could spiral into a long-term illness. And if their illness is catching, their showing up to work could infect multiple members of the team. So presenteeism can lead to increased sickness absence across your company. 

According to the latest CIPD report, 89% of UK companies have experienced presenteeism, and 73% have experienced leaveism. This is what happens when you’re approach to managing sick leave backfires. Yet only 32% of UK companies are taking steps to discourage such unhealthy behaviour. 

So how can you manage it without creating more problems down the line? 

2. Intelligent absence reporting

How do you currently record sickness absence? What sort of data do you collect, and do you ever review this data? 

Good absence reporting will help you see the bigger picture. If you collect the right data, you’ll get the sort of insights that could help you spot certain patterns. This can help you act to address any underlying causes in your company.  

Meanwhile, Bradford Factor scoring could automatically flag any repeat instances of minor illnesses among your staff. Which again, could help you identify areas of improvement. 

3. Return to work interviews

If an employee takes sick leave, either short-term or long-term, what happens when they return to work? Do you just take it for granted that they’ve recovered, and let them get on with it? Or do you have a dedicated return to work plan? 

A return to work plan will help you determine whether any factors in the workplace contributed to the employee’s absence. It will also help you identify steps you could take to help the employee integrate seamlessly back into work, in a way that won’t affect their recovery, and that won’t cause any problems for the rest of the teamThis could include a phased-return, a period of working-from-home, and working to make the working environment more accessible. 

return to work interview can help you tailor a personalised return plan for each employee. Make it formal, yet friendly. Ask the right questions, and remember that you’re not just collecting data for the sake of it. Instead, look for ways you can act on your insights to make things better for everyone. 

4. Embrace Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP)

An employee assistance programme (EAP) helps you assess the state of your employees’ mental and physical health and wellbeing, and to offer assistance where it’s needed. With a good EAP, employees can access whatever support they need, whether that’s a friendly and informal counselling session or a referral service for a more serious problem. 

A major reason why sickness absence hits so many companies hard is that employees often feel like they must face their problems alone. This is why small issues can quickly spiral into critical long-term problems, and why unhealthy practices like presenteeism and leaveism can take hold. 

An EAP sends a strong message to all employees: That they’re not alone. That they must never suffer in silence, and that you’re here to help them in any way you can. In this way, you could nip emerging problems in the bud, while instances are less likely to negatively impact the rest of the team. 

5. Introduce wellbeing initiatives

An employee wellbeing initiative can complement an Employee Assistance Programme. Your job can directly impact your physical and mental health. Wellbeing initiatives aim to ensure that this impact is a positive one. It’s all about identifying and eliminating all of the most common sources of employee stress and dissatisfaction while introducing schemes to foster a culture of good physical and mental health. 

What makes a good employee wellbeing programme? Many things. Some companies can afford to go all-out. But an employee wellbeing programme doesn’t have to be so elaborate and expensive. It could be as simple as introducing an open-door policy and letting all employees know that you’ll always be around to listen-to and act-upon their concerns. 

Many wellbeing initiatives also focus on physical health and nutrition. Healthy eating can improve your mood and strengthen your immune system, so your employee wellbeing initiative could start by offering free fruit to all employees. There are also strong links between regular exercise and good physical and mental health. So growing numbers of companies are looking for ways to encourage their employees to move more, with cycle-to-work schemes and discounted gym memberships. 

An employee wellbeing initiative should work hand-in-hand with an employee experience programme. Both help to make sickness absence less likely from occurring in the first place through directly addressing the underlying causes of physical and mental ill-health in the workplace. At the same time, both ensure that, if any problems ever arise, your employees can access all the support they need.  

In this way, sickness absence doesn’t become a growing problem. You can deal with isolated instances long before they have a chance to affect your whole team and your whole business. 

6. Effectively sickness absence on a global scale

If you operate on a global scale, all of your business problems become more complex. Sickness absence is no exception. According to the CIPD, this UK workers take around 5.8 days off due to sickness each year. This figure will be different across the world. Plus, different countries will have different rules concerning sick pay, annual leave, and other statutory requirements. 

A good sickness management system is critical if you want to manage sickness absence on a global scale. It can scale with your company, and allow you to access detailed absence data across your entire workforce, even if it’s scattered across multiple global locations. You can define local statutory laws for each country you operate in, so you’ll never have to worry about calculating the leave allowance for your various global teams. In short, you’ll make life easier for all your employees, no matter where they’re based.

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