If the latest survey from Canada Life is to be believed, there shouldn’t be many empty chairs in your office today.  Presenteeism is apparently rife, with 93 per cent of employees saying they regularly come into work despite being ill, because they are worried about job security and redundancy.

It’s a sad sign of our difficult economic times that people are so concerned for their jobs that they are frightened to retreat under the duvet when they’ve got a raging temperature or are covered in spots.  I can’t imagine there are many employers who would actively want people who are ill with flu or other infectious bugs to struggle into the office and potentially start an epidemic.

Getting the balance right between encouraging people to stay at home when they’re really poorly – and encouraging them to soldier on if it’s only a slight sniffle can, however, be a real challenge.  Hitting the right note is particularly important for small businesses where just one person off sick can have a real impact on the company’s ability to keep the wheels turning and meet the demands of clients.

The following five point ‘health check’ will help you make sure you are supporting employees who are unwell appropriately – while also nipping unnecessary absence in the bud.

Have a clear policy

Part of the problem with both presenteeism and absenteeism is that people are often not clear about the company’s stance on sickness absence.  Make sure you have a comprehensive policy that sets out the procedure people need to follow if they are ill, their entitlement to sick pay and any support the business may offer, such as access to private health care or an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme).  Provide training for line managers so they are confident putting the policy into practice and to ensure it is applied consistently across the business.  Don’t just tell staff about the policy when they join and expect them to remember the detail.  Make it widely available on the Intranet, on company noticeboards and in the staff handbook and issue occasional reminders.

Monitor Absence

Monitoring and recording absence can give you an overview of sickness levels in the business, as well as the detail on who is absent, when and how often.  Detailed records can help you identify trends (for example if absence is consistently high in a particular team or department) and will also highlight individuals who are regularly registering short term absences that you might want to probe into.  This also ensures you have proper records in place should you need to take formal action where sickness levels are unacceptable.  Monitoring absence doesn’t have to be a time-consuming or complicated task.  Sophisticated and cost effective HR software is now available to make the job of collecting and recording information quick and easy.

Encourage communication

If the business has a culture of open communication, employees are much more likely to be engaged with their job and feel a sense of responsibility for their work and loyalty to their team.  This means they will be much less likely to indulge in regular ‘duvet’ days because they won’t want to let their colleagues or clients down.  People will also be more willing to talk openly to their manager if they have a health problem and need support from the business and understanding from their peers.  It’s good practice to insist that in all but extreme circumstances, employees phone in and speak directly to their manager when they are reporting in sick, rather than sending a text or email.   This will help the manager be clear about what’s wrong and how long the absence is likely to last, so that they can plan for cover and provide support if needed.  People are also less likely to feign illness when they know they are going to have to have a one-to-one conversation with their boss and cant’ hide behind technology or a family member.

Take steps to reduce stress

A little stress is not a bad thing – but in today’s pressurised working environments it’s all too easy for the scales to get out of kilter.  Look out for signs of stress among employees and try and find ways to help them cope better with the demands of their job.  You might want to make changes to the way work is organised, for example, or allow people to work more flexibly.  You will also find some tips on how to help your people become more resilient and able to cope with the challenges of working in a tough climate in one of our previous blog posts.  Encourage managers to use both formal and informal performance conversations to keep a check on how well people are coping with their workload so that they can provide advice and support where needed. The latest HR systems include performance management functionality that connects employees and managers through the Cloud, so it’s easier to record and view performance related conversations.

Tackle absence issues head-on

Don’t let absence-related issues fester.  If an employee is taking an unacceptable amount of time off and you suspect it is not genuine, or is regularly coming into work and under-performing because they are clearly not well, you need to address the problem.  If the issue is left unresolved, it will cause resentment among other employees and may encourage them to think that if their colleague can get away with it, they can too.  Follow whatever procedure is set out in your absence policy and listen carefully to what the employee in question is telling you.  Often persistent absence is masking another problem – such as stress or lack of skills to do the job properly – which can be tackled once everyone is aware of the situation.

Is presenteeism an issue in your business?  How have you managed to strike the right balance?  Let us have your views.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.