‘Tis the season to be sniffly – if the number of people who’ve been ‘off sick’ when I’ve tried to contact them this week is anything to go by.  Now of course it’s not uncommon for employees to succumb to colds and viruses at this time of year, when the temperature fluctuates between Indian Summer and depths of Winter, seemingly at the click of switch.

But according to research from PwC, the number of empty seats in businesses across the UK is an issue of growing concern rather than just a seasonal issue.  In a recent global survey, they found that UK workers take more than four times as many days off work due to sickness than their global counterparts.  The average amount of time off the job due to illness is now 9.1 days per year in the UK, with businesses in the public sector, retail and leisure and engineering and manufacturing racking up the highest rates.

PwC points out that at a time when companies are already struggling to grow, high sickness rates can have a negative impact on the bottom line.  They suggest that SMEs, where having just one or two people off sick can have a crippling effect, need to pay particular attention to finding ways of improving employees health, morale and motivation.

So what can you do to break the sickness cycle and cut absence rates in your business?

Create an engaging culture

If people are working in an environment where they feel energised and valued, it will be reflected in their behaviour and approach to work.  Let’s be honest, if you’re working in a job where everyone is always miserable and you never get any thanks or appreciation, you’re much more likely to throw an occasional sickie or burrow back under the duvet when you’re feeling below par but still capable of going into work.  An article in last week’s HR Magazine suggests that leaders have a key role to play in setting the kind of culture where people are happy in their work and willing to go the extra mile for the business.  “Leaders need to be visible, accessible and show happiness and achievement as well as concern in the face of challenges,” writes Simon Cooper of The Chemistry Group.  So if you’re at the helm of an SME, make sure you keep it authentic and real in order to build trust and ensure you are leading a happy ship.

Have a clear policy on absence

The chances are that your business does have a policy on sickness absence.  But do employees know where to find it – and are your managers following whatever procedures you have laid down?    The problem is that companies have a tendency to trot out their absence policy as part of the induction process for new employees – and then never mention it again.  As a result, when someone is off sick they can’t quite remember what they are supposed to do and their manager is probably too busy arranging cover to worry about whether the information is being recorded properly.  If you want to get a real handle on absence in your business, you need to make your policy a living document.  Make sure it’s readily available on your intranet, on the company noticeboard or in the staff handbook and remind managers regularly of what they are supposed to do when someone is off sick.  Of course the latest HR software solutions can also make it easy for managers to record information about absence in their teams so they can see if there are any trends emerging or if specific employees are suffering regularly from ‘Monday-morning-itis’.

Have open conversations about absence

Managers are often afraid to talk about absence with their people.  They feel it’s inappropriate to pry too deeply into what’s wrong or are worried about how they should react if someone tells them about a serious health issue.  Conversations about illness should of course be handled sensitively – but it’s perfectly acceptable for a manager to ask what’s wrong and to get an idea of when the employee might expect to be back at work.  An open conversation can help reassure employees that their boss is concerned about their health and doesn’t expect them behind their desk before they are properly recovered (and indeed doesn’t want them back too early if they are likely to infect the rest of the team with a nasty bug).  It can also help to alert managers if there is a serious health issue or an underlying reason behind frequent absences (such as childcare problems or caring responsibilities) so that they can put measures in place to support employees and help them back to work.  Some companies make it a rule their employees have to phone in and speak to their manager personally when they are reporting in sick, rather than sending an anonymous text or email or getting a relative to croak down the phone for them.  Unsurprisingly, this approach often proves to be successful in  reducing  the number of short term absences.

Monitor stress levels

Stress is now the biggest cause of work-related absence and an issue that needs to be taken seriously by businesses of all sizes.  Quite simply, if people are under too much pressure and can’t see an end to an ever-growing list of tasks, targets and responsibilities, they will eventually crack under the strain.  Their performance will suffer and ultimately, so will their health.  SMEs can be exciting, busy places to work and often attract people who thrive in the face of a challenge, but it’s important to make sure the pressure doesn’t tip over into unacceptable levels.  Managers need to be aware of the signs of stress so they can spot people who may be struggling and offer help and support.  They also need to create an atmosphere where employees know it’s OK to say if they can’t cope with everything on their plate and be confident that there will be no negative repercussions.

Promote healthy lifestyles

People’s lifestyles are of course their own business and employers certainly can’t dictate how people live outside of work.  There is, however, much that companies can do to promote healthy lifestyles and encourage employees to look after themselves.  As a smaller company, you may not be able to afford a corporate gym membership, but there is nothing to stop you setting up a company football or netball team, for example, or inviting a local instructor in to run a lunch-time yoga session.  There’s also a wealth of free information around on everything from healthy eating and responsible drinking to stopping smoking that you can make available to employees who want to make better lifestyle choices.  You could also consider inviting people in to do lunchtime talks or demonstrations for those who are interested.  Creating a buzz around healthy lifestyles doesn’t take a great deal of time and resources – but it can pay significant dividends in terms of the longer-term well-being of your people.

Look out for some more useful info and suggestions on how to improve absence rates in a future blog, where we’ll be looking at the results of the CIPD’s annual absence survey – and let us know what you are doing to break the sickness cycle in your business.

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.