Look beyond absence rates to understand true state of staff health

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Falling sickness absence rates may seem like good news, but they could mean serious health and wellbeing issues are going undetected, especially while remote working remains common. Charles Alberts discusses the importance of ensuring absence data is accurate. 

At first glance, the recent fall in sickness related absence suggests that since the transition to mass remote working, the state of UK employee health has improved.

According to the Office for National Statistics, sickness related absence fell to 1.8% in 2020 – the lowest it’s been since reporting began in 1995. On top of this, on average, homeworkers took only two sick-related days last year compared to non-homeworkers who were absent for 4.3 days.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and it could show a very different picture, where workforce health issues are clouded and insights from records may not reveal the realities. Indeed, for remote workers or those in flexible environments, this drop could actually signal their health is at risk.

Not only are home-based employees potentially masking ill-health and continuing to log in while sick, working virtually reduces the ability of employers to detect sickness and support employees with some health conditions.

Sickness reporting

There are two issues of note. Reporting is one. Long standing problems with sickness reporting is very likely to be undermining the ability of employers to understand and support staff health problems. This lack of insight is an increasing problem for organisations when, according to Aon’s Benefits and Trends Survey 2021, 52% are using absence data to inform their health and wellbeing strategies – a move which could be detrimental if uninformed, incomplete or inaccurate data is utilised.

In part, this problem stems from the question of who records employee absence. Indeed, when employees take on this role – which is an increasing occurrence in a remote setting – complications can occur.

Firstly, if line managers don’t enforce reporting rules, many absences can go undetected as employees fail to comply. Even when absences are reported by staff, accuracy can decrease. Often employees must tick boxes specifying their reasons for absence, and we’ve seen some employers’ records that show more than half of all absences are said to be for unknown or unspecified reasons, making it impossible for employers to understand underlying issues. This is particularly concerning considering that 60% of organisations responding to the Aon survey perhaps surprisingly said that they are “confident” or “very confident” in the accuracy of their absence data.

Recent reports from absence management provider e-days also highlight the importance of employers accurately analysing the data they are given. Its statistics showed that the number of absences due to stress have increased by 113% over the past year. This highlights how vital it is not to just examine the total number of sickness days, but to analyse the composition of those days. Understanding why absences take place and not just their frequency is essential to shine a light on employees’ real wellbeing.

Presenteeism

Beyond this, another large threat to organisations while employees work from home is the increased likelihood of presenteeism. When staff are no longer directly in front of employers, it is harder for managers to detect problems with health, wellbeing and “showing up half-heartedly”.

The implications of this are vast. Not only can staff productivity fall, the cost can be 2-3 times more than the cost of sickness absence and there are wider impacts, such as on team morale and customer service levels.

When the problem of presenteeism with employees recording their own absences is combined, there are far fewer opportunities for early employer intervention. If line managers cannot detect health problems, or absences are inaccurately recorded, it reduces the ability of employers to refer staff to occupational health practitioners or to take a proactive and preventative approach to employee health and wellbeing.

The crux of this issue is that employers must find new ways to accurately measure the state of wellbeing of their workforces. The current methods are detrimental to the health of employees and to business output.

The crux of this issue is that employers must find new ways to accurately measure the state of wellbeing of their workforces. The current methods are detrimental to the health of employees and to business output.”

Monitoring mood

One answer is for employers to monitor employee moods in the moment, knowing how they feel on a given day and understand that there are triggers, negative and positive, which can affect them.

Not only does this help employers respond through aggregated insights, but it provides employees with tools that help them monitor their own wellbeing; something which is fundamental in a remote environment. Staff are empowered to understand what is affecting their mood, when they need to take a break or find further support for their health and wellbeing.

Neuroscience, when adapted into employee listening activities, is increasingly enabling employers to better understand their workforce. It can reveal what employees are feeling in comparison to employee engagement surveys, which can have a bias if employees feel they need to respond in a certain way.

Absence rates can be an indicator of staff wellbeing, but to ensure the most effective wellbeing strategies employers must, at a minimum, take a close look at how they record absence to ensure that it is accurate and timely from day one. This not only allows early intervention when appropriate, but importantly, analysis helps inform an effective wellbeing strategy.

As organisations transition more permanently into flexible and hybrid working, improving the monitoring of health and wellbeing will ideally be designed for the long haul.

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Charles Alberts

About Charles Alberts

Charles Alberts is head of wellbeing solutions at Aon.
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