Managing sickness absence

As the day of the working year on which the highest number of employees are likely to call in sick, the first Monday in February has been given the dubious title of National Sickie Day.

Of course, in winter colds and flu are circulating and it is often preferable to have a genuinely ill employee stay home rather than infect the entire workforce. But the occasion does highlight some more serious issues about the broader and very costly problem of staff absence in British workplaces.

Sickness absence

The potential cost of sickness absence is huge, and companies need to behave proactively to reduce the impact of ill health on the business and employees. One of the first steps in doing this is to identify a health problem early, if possible before any absence is taken – if not, then within the first week of absence.

This does not necessarily mean intervening early, but rather assessing an employee swiftly to see whether they need to be referred to a health professional or can, in fact, help themselves.

Line managers’ role

Line managers should be at the heart of this process. They are the key to managing attendance, and this should become part of their responsibilities, and be monitored as such. Of course, line managers need to be trained to understand the clinical, legal, occupational and financial aspects of ill health.

They should be supported by a case manager, responsible for the management of the finer details such as appropriate referrals and the right intervention (either clinical, psychological or social, or a mixture. Case managers should also be able to provide advice on safely managing employees at work, or back to work to achieve a reduction of costs relating to sickness absence, treatment and injury claims.

Employees’ role

Clearly, employees themselves have an important part to play. They may need guidance in understanding their options, treatment choices and how to actively engage in their own recovery. In both musculoskeletal and mental health conditions, the evidence-based biopsychosocial approach – which has been around for a number of years but is still not widely practiced – advocates an element of self-care and guided self-help combined with conservative, focused management. This places the emphasis on returning to work as an important part of returning to normal life, while providing learning techniques to help prevent future problems.

Work is good for you

Indeed, it is essential for both employees and employers to grasp the idea that work is actually good for people, and that being absent is not always the best approach to illness. It’s likely that this will require a modification in the employee’s duties, and this needs to be carefully timetabled and relatively short term.

If this adjustment needs any longer than four to six weeks, for example, then in the majority of cases, managers will need to consider temporarily or permanently redeploying the employee.

Remaining at work needs to be managed carefully, but aiming to support an employee at work rather than at home often aids recovery.

This runs rather contrary to the common media portrayal of work being a cause of stress and illness. In fact, while medical practitioners are often quick to label illness work-related, this is often not the case. There has to be a big difference in the approach to managing absence due to stress which arises from the workplace and the kind of stress which is caused by external factors but in turn affects performance at work.

If the stress is due to a problem at work, then removing or reducing its source may be enough for a person to return to the organisation, and there may be no need for treatment. If the stress is due to a problem outside work, the business is not in a position to remove the source but can help the person in other ways, perhaps by providing access to treatment or by making adjustments to the workload until they are able to perform full duties.

Health and wellbeing

While stress can be tackled relatively robustly, health and wellbeing are more complicated. These may allow the healthcare industry to sell more products to employers, such as health screening or gym membership, but in reality this may not have a great impact on the health, and therefore attendance, of staff. Common problems, such as lack of exercise, poor nutrition, drinking too much, smoking or drug use, all have the potential to affect attendance.

To support improvements in employees’ health, an organisation needs to adapt its culture to one which actively encourages regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and a sensible alcohol intake. This might include encouraging sponsored sporting events, building a social life around such activities and creating competitions between teams, departments and sites. Assigning a number of ‘health’ champions across the organisation can also make a real difference and help generate buy-in from employees. All of this will increase motivation and encourage participation.

But for these measures to be successful, it will require dedication to both accurate data collection and the building of a clear policy within an organisation. It takes a shift in approach from the top down, but this can make a huge difference. There may always be one day of the year when employees feel more inclined to stay under the duvet, but in companies with the right systems, support and a positive health culture, the temptation is far more likely to be overcome.

Pamela Gellatly, chief executive, Healthcare RM (pictured above)

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