Sickness absence could be reduced

Absence from work is higher among women than men, but Stephen Bevan, Institute for Employment Studies associate director, thinks more could be done to reduce the problem

Recent surveys of sickness absence have, once again, got people talking about the so-called British disease of “malingering”. With personnel managers claiming that around a third of absence can be attributed to reasons other than genuine sickness, we have to wonder about the increased willingness of the average employee to take the occasional “sickie”.

For some line managers, I know, these findings will not be news at all. They have known all along that a hard core of their staff are fundamentally work-shy. And the news that women have more sickness absence than men will not come as a huge surprise to many of them.

Even 45 per cent of members of the Institute of Directors recently claimed that they would “think twice” about recruiting women of childbearing age in the current climate.

So, is this one in the eye for the bleeding heart liberals in the “welfare” wing of the personnel management community? Well, I’m afraid not. If we take a closer look at the research on non-sickness absence, particularly among women, we soon discover two things. First, of all groups, women have the highest disposition to attend work. They are the most likely to struggle in when they are ill and the most likely to feel guilty about having time off when they are sick. Second, they are the group facing most obstacles to their ability to attend work. More than one in six UK employees is a working mother, and 4 million women look after elderly relatives. If their childcare arrangements break down at short notice it forces them to choose between home and work – usually no contest. Recent estimates suggest that working mothers take absence in excess of five working days per year due to childcare breakdown.

So what we are witnessing is an increase in sickness absence which can largely be put down to the struggle that many employees have in juggling their home lives and work commitments.

And what are employers doing to help? Well, half of all private sector workplaces offer no form of flexible working arrangements to working carers. Paid leave for short-term emergencies is available only in 15 per cent of firms. Even in those firms offering flexible working practices, there is concern that take-up among some employees is being affected by fears of “backlash” from line managers and colleagues.

It seems to me that employers cannot have their cake and eat it. If they want to do something to improve attendance at work, they must start to offer a few simple flexibilities to those in their workforce who need it most.

Evidence is growing that doing this yields wider benefits in terms of improved attractiveness to potential recruits, improved retention, improved performance and improved customer service. None of this is “rocket science”, and being family-friendly does not automatically increase red tape and bureaucracy.

In recent years employers have been fond of lecturing the workforce about their need to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of business. Perhaps now the flexibility shoe needs to be on the other foot.

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