Vicki Field, HR Director at private GP clinic, London Doctors Clinic, discusses why employers need to look beyond the marketing hype to tackle the underlying issues surrounding staff absence.
The 4th of February has been named ‘National Sickie Day’, which joins ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Divorce Monday’ as one of those slightly random and meaningless names which generates countless articles and sweeping generalisations.
An estimated 350,000 people were absent from work on the first Monday of February last year and according to national statistics this is the day when people are most likely to 'pull a sickie’ each year.
The factors attributed to this however don’t necessarily relate to health, instead they range from people partying too heavily after receiving their first pay cheque after Christmas, to employees faking illnesses to attend job interviews after re-evaluating their careers in January, or simply people wanting a day off work.
Why the term is unhelpful
There is an argument that Blue Monday (or the day of the year we are all supposed to feel miserable) trivialises mental health. Grey days, no money, failed resolutions are all reasons to feel miserable, but genuine depression or anxiety can be felt on the sunniest day in August by the richest person in the world.
Providing information and support to deal with the root causes of mental health are more important than convincing us all that January is a sad month.
Genuine depression or anxiety can be felt on the sunniest day in August by the richest person in the world.
Similarly, National Sickie Day is a way of trivialising ill-health. Generally, a ‘sickie’ is considered to be a self imposed duvet day where the person isn’t genuinely ill but instead doesn’t fancy the 7am commute on a frosty day, or the 10am meeting, or just feels like lying on the sofa with a box of chocolates, cup of tea and daytime TV.
Considering that National Sickie Day falls in the middle of colds and flu season, it’s obvious that some employees who put in sick leave on this day are genuinely ill. In this instance the person just shouldn’t be working if they’re not well enough to do so.
Importance of an absence management strategy
However, when there is a failure to properly support people, the health of employees can come second. Considering the links between physical wellness and mental health, underestimating illness can be dangerous.
Whilst having a motivated and productive workforce is the backbone of a good business, companies need to balance an effective approach to absence management with the understanding that people can be genuinely ill.
Supporting unwell employees is an important part of any absence management strategy. Keeping healthy employees in work should be a core part of any wellness strategy.
There are numerous theories around what causes people to attend work whilst ill, ranging from employees’ fearing being managed-out of a company or not being paid for being absent, to a culture of ‘presenteeism’ where any absence is viewed negatively.
Keeping healthy employees in work should be a core part of any wellness strategy.
Attending work whilst ill can be unhealthy for employees as it prolongs their period of ill health. There could also be long term mental health risks for staff members who are physically burnt-out or unwell but feel obliged to work.
Also, on a very practical level being at work doesn’t necessarily mean that sick staff are being productive, and they are more likely to spread germs to other colleagues.
Why you need a wellbeing strategy
None of us function at our best when sick and it only makes sense that healthy individuals are better placed to contribute towards productivity. Introducing a wellness strategy looks at keeping people healthy and increasing motivation and productivity.
A wellbeing strategy pulls together all the interventions a company can apply to support the mental and physical health of employees. It can include partnering with organisations such as an Employee Assistance Programme or a private GP practise to provide on-site medical support.
A wellness strategy looks at keeping people healthy and increasing motivation and productivity.
It can also include lower cost practises such as encouraging walking clubs or weight loss challenges across the company. Workforces are different in every company; a legal firm will have different challenges to a high volume call-centre with shift work. The key is to understand your people and the specific challenges or stresses they’re exposed to at work.
Investment is needed
A recent report by Reward and Employee Benefits Association (REBA), Employee Wellbeing Research 2018, provides insight into the fact that most employers are likely to provide EAPs, whereas employees preferred cash-bought benefits such as dental insurance and medical cash plans.
What this shows, is the importance people place on their health and the value that they perceive in accessing a private dentist or doctor. One of the best ways to develop a relevant wellbeing strategy for your company is to simply ask your people what they want.
There can be a cost to a well thought out strategy, so measuring the effectiveness of the strategy is the key way to communicate the bottom line benefits to the board. Questions such as: have absence rates decreased; has motivation increased; has turnover decreased.
Employees preferred cash-bought benefits such as dental insurance and medical cash plans.
Looking at specific KPIs (as well as talking to your people) can assist with understanding which elements of the strategy are working and which need tweaking.
So rather than think about National Sickie Day, instead look at introducing a wellness strategy to focus on helping people who are genuinely ill, and reducing the number of self imposed duvet days by increasing engagement and motivation.
How to cultivate a healthy workforce
Top tips for a healthy culture:
- Introduce a wellbeing strategy designed to support the mental and physical health of your employees.
- Ensure a combination of low cost practises such as encouraging staff to take a lunchbreak, with a reward such as PMI or access to a private GP.
- Introduce flexible working; employees may not feel well enough for the trip into the office and sitting in it all day, but they feel able to keep on top of emails at home.
- Ensure managers are trained in absence management and always hold a ‘back to work’ interview to ensure that the employee is well enough to return and to capture any underlying issues
- Proactively identify employees who are clearly too ill to be at work, and send them home.