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Absenteeism: Communication is the best cure

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Sickness absence

With UK businesses asking what can be done to stamp out absenteeism, Dr Robert Willcox explores the solutions out there to ease employees back into the workplace.


Employee absence can be extremely disruptive in terms of productivity, with UK businesses losing an estimated £13.2 billion each year as a result. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) recently released their ‘Absenteeism 2008’ survey, placing a £2 billion price tag on workers who are absent for less-genuine reasons.

So what can businesses do to buck the trend and effectively tackle Britain’s ‘sick note’ culture, while acting sensitively towards those suffering from genuine ailments?

“Management must refrain from finger pointing when staff are absent under seemingly suspicious circumstances.”

It is always important for management to remain vigilant when absence appears suspect, taking appropriate disciplinary action where necessary. However, they must refrain from finger pointing when staff are absent under seemingly suspicious circumstances, if not to avoid a quagmire of legal issues, but to maintain a good working relationship and assist in a swift and healthy return to work.

Seemingly ‘less-serious’ occupational health conditions, such as simple headaches and mild back pain, are two of the main causes of short-term absence, which are often worked through or ignored entirely, yet can have serious effects on the day-to-day practices of staff.

Simple measures

It falls on management to incorporate various wellness strategies to reduce the impact of such illness and prevent future problems. For example, simple measures such as assigning more reasonable deadlines and spreading workloads would go some way to alleviate stress, creating a healthier and more productive atmosphere.

Managers must be proactive and work closely with employees if they sense they are unwell and unable to perform their regular duties, redeploying them to a more suitable role or reducing their workload for a brief period. For example, if a manual worker suffers a back injury and is unable to fulfil the requirements of their position, it would be wise to let them continue in a less-strenuous role until they have recovered.

Redeployment issues have courted much debate recently, following recommendations from the national director for health and work, Dame Carol Black’s suggested ‘fit-note’ solution. These urge GPs to prescribe notes to sick employees, outlining the work they can do, as opposed to sending them home to recuperate. This is often seen as a means of pushing employees back into the workplace too fast or enforcing the ‘sleep when you’re dead’ attitude adopted by over-zealous management.

It is found, however, the longer an employee is absent from their workplace, the harder it will be for them to return. Research shows employees on long-term sick leave, who are absent for any more than four weeks, are less likely to return at all, due to feelings of lethargy and apathy.

Research also defies the popular misconception of work being bad for you and slowing down recovery from illness, when in actual fact, when a person is more active and focused, the recovery process becomes accelerated. This is especially important to bear in mind when a member of staff is absent on long-term sick leave, which is regarded as anything above 20 days. This is often the result of reoccurring illness, or while staff are recovering from injury.

Short-term absenteeism, commonly regarded as periods of absence of less than 20 days, are often approached by management with much accusation; either downplayed or dismissed as an excuse to have a day off. However, this is an entirely counter-productive means of tackling what may be part a larger problem.

Serious ailments

Many occupational health issues stem from the workplace, for example, an over-abundance of deadlines and a heavy workload may lead to stress, sleep deprivation or mild depression, which may develop into much more serious ailments if not addressed correctly.

When faced with issues which may not be curable through medicine, management should promote self-help if they feel it is hindering the productivity of an employee. This is best applied by simply communicating with the worker in a bid to get to the root of the issue and to subsequently steer them in the direction of where to find help.

“When faced with issues which may not be curable through medicine, management should promote self-help if they feel it is hindering the productivity of an employee.”

There are also a large number of credible self-diagnosis tools available online which can offer advice and recommended remedies at speed, which greatly reduces the time required to seek medical help for short-term illness and the chances of lethargy setting in.

While managers cannot diagnose their employees as such, a common-sense approach to identifying when staff are contending with a medical or mental health issue can vastly reduce trends of absenteeism. All it can take is for management to recognise a worker is out of character or working less productively than usual to spot something is amiss.

Many businesses go about this entirely the wrong way and have introduced ‘three day’ schemes to discourage sick leave by not paying for the first three days of absence. Such policies will make employees afraid of taking days off to recover and in this may present the employer with health and safety issues should their ailment place others at risk.

Communication is the best cure and simply getting to know a team or individual employees will make it easier to draft wellness strategies which are tailored to the specific needs of individuals. Alternately, this will help strengthen the mutual trust between management and workers which is required to create a happy working environment, which is also proven to be the healthiest.


Dr Robert Willcox is occupational health director with International SOS, a leading medical and security assistance company.

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