A looming recession and growing cost of living crisis have put just about every business onto the back foot.
With finances squeezed and labour markets becoming tighter, every organisation will be looking to operate as efficiently as possible. However, if the latest figures from the ONS are to be believed, sickness absences could make this an increasingly difficult task…
The ONS’s data indicates that sickness absence rates in 2021 were at their highest in over a decade; with nearly 150 million working days were lost to sickness or injury. Given the pandemic, this will come as no surprise: but, what is likely to be of more concern to HR professionals is that only 1 in 4 of those absences were attributed to Covid.
It isn’t just the rates of sickness-related absences HR need to contend with, though. A survey conducted by Patient Claim Line in May this year discovered that 76% of British workers forced themselves to go to work despite being ill. Perhaps more worryingly, one in three admitted to doing this repeatedly.
So, on the one hand, HR need to find effective strategies to help their business cope with rising levels of sick leave. But, on the other, more and more employees are also seemingly pushing themselves to work even when they’re not fit to do so.
HR’s role in balancing sickness absence and presenteeism
These two issues should be of concern to HR professionals. British businesses will likely have negatively impacted levels of productivity due to these increased sickness absences. Lots of employees taking short-term unplanned absences will naturally equate to less people being able to carry out the work a business needs to do to thrive – this isn’t ideal given the current financial climate.
It’s also worrying that presenteeism appears to be primarily driven by employees’ fear of losing their job. For example, the research by Patient Claim Line found that a quarter of participants confessed that they worry that they may get fired if they take too many days off for illness.
With a recession looming large on the horizon, it’s reasonable to assume people will be anxious about their jobs. They will want to avoid doing anything they think might reduce their job security – even if that means working when unwell. Whilst the ‘carry on regardless’ attitude is understandable, presenteeism can be just as damaging to a business as excessive unplanned absences.
Although they can’t prevent people from picking up bugs or more serious illnesses, what can employers and HR teams do to ensure they strike the right balance between keeping unplanned absenteeism rates low, whilst also ensuring people are not working when they really should be staying in bed?
Here are our five ways to strike the right balance…
1. Have a clear absence policy
Having a clearly laid down absence policy means everyone understands your stance on sickness absence and is clear about the procedures that need to be followed. Try to keep the policy as simple as possible so there’s no room for confusion or misinterpretation.
Make sure you explain the policy to all new recruits as part of their induction programme and ensure it is easily accessible for referral when necessary. You can do this by including it on your HR software’s shared HR portal, your employee handbook or making it accessible via an internal intranet (if you have one, of course).
People need to know that persistent, short-term absence for no good reason is not acceptable; but, if they are genuinely ill, they are not expected to come into work and won’t be penalised for it. With that in mind, it’s absolutely essential you record absences in the right way.
It’s worth noting there’s research to show that more than half of UK adults (56%) have “pulled a sickie” at least once in the last year to enjoy a day off work. Should things go pear-shaped and you find yourself having to take disciplinary action, it’s vital you have the key metrics available to support and justify this decision.
2. Apply the policy consistently
Your policy won’t be worth the paper it’s written on if managers are not applying it consistently. Make sure a culture of ‘acceptance’ isn’t taking hold in some teams and departments.
If people see colleagues throwing regular sickies without consequence or being absent without good reason (such as taking excessively long lunch breaks or finishing early, for example), they’ll be more likely to think they can get away with it as well. Employees will also get very mixed messages if they see genuine sickness being (rightly) treated with sympathy and concern in one area and not in another.
Don’t let resentment creep in among staff who can see that absence is regarded and treated differently across the business. Make sure you either talk through the policy informally with all managers, or provide short internal training sessions to make sure everyone is up to speed with the procedures and is applying them correctly.
3. Have better conversations
Managers often sweep persistent short-term absence under the carpet because they don’t really know how to deal with it. They are worried they will get into confrontations with employees or may expose themselves to claims of bullying if they take a tough stance.
Many line managers are also uncomfortable dealing with genuine illness, particularly if it is of a serious nature. They don’t know what questions are acceptable to ask or how they can support employees in an appropriate manner. Companies tend to assume that managers can communicate clearly and openly with their teams, but it’s not a skill that comes naturally to all.
Consider putting together a training programme or offering informal coaching to help managers gain the confidence to deal appropriately with the difficult conversations that often arise around absence.
4. Introduce return to work interviews
Return to work interviews are a great way to support and underline your absence policy. The aim of the interview should be to understand why the person has been off ill, to make sure they are fit to return to work and to discuss if any adjustments or short-term changes to working arrangements need to be made to facilitate their return.
It’s a good way to support people who have genuinely been off ill and to find out if any work-related issues are affecting their health. It’s also a great way to identify what’s really driving absences in your business and to nip unnecessary short-term absence in the bud. People will think more carefully about whether to throw a sickie if they know that on their return, they will be required to check in with their manager and explain the reasons for their absence.
Do make sure, however, that managers are approaching the interview from a position of concern rather than a position of policing or they may find themselves getting into unnecessary confrontations.
5. Be transparent
Lastly, employees are often unaware of the impact absence is having on the business. They don’t always understand the knock-on effect on productivity or appreciate the difference reducing absence could make to the bottom line.
Thanks to the latest absence management software, it’s now much easier to collect data about absence, identify patterns and assess the true cost. Don’t keep the information your system gives you to yourself. If you share it openly with employees, they will begin to understand why it’s important to keep absence under control and are much more likely to support any policies you may introduce.