How can organisations utilise the employee benefits they provide to help reduce sickness absence? Colin Micklewright discusses the options.
In recent years, there are very few issues that have developed with such enormous impact upon both top and bottom line performance as the spiralling trend of sickness absence.
Employers are well aware of the effect that hiring good staff has to their balance sheet, but all too often some adopt a ‘head in the sand’ approach to the consequences that employee health issues have on their productivity and performance figures.
However, absence can have a huge effect on a business – last year the average cost of sickness absence to organisations was £659 per employee. So, how can employers go about managing absence within the workplace?
It’s clear that organisations need to address this problem by taking a proactive approach in terms of the health and well-being of employees. However, it is not only employers that have their sights firmly set on this particular issue. The stated intention of the government’s Welfare Reform Bill recognises the need to provide added support to the 2.7 million people currently claiming incapacity benefits by helping 1 million claimants over the next few years to re-enter and remain active in the labour market.
The message is clear: employee health and wellbeing, coupled with effective early intervention, rehabilitation and support, are business imperatives for keeping employees in work. However, whilst government regulation will undoubtedly provide an extra layer of support to employees claiming incapacity benefits, employers would be unwise to rely on this alone without implementing their own strategies.
So, what services are available to employers looking to improve their employee health and wellbeing within the workplace? And will these services bring any help to the organisation?
Although there are a number of causes of long-term absence, such as musculoskeletal disorders, accidents and psychological illness, one of the causes that is steadily increasing is stress. The Health & Safety Executive estimates that, together with anxiety and depression, 13.8 million working days are lost a year from stress. As prevention is always better than cure, employers must look into ways to ensure that stress does not become a problem in their workplace.
One way do to this would be to look at stress management within the workplace. Stress management services are available as stand-alone products but can also be found as part of other absence management services. Stress management tends to be short-term, focussing on practical solutions to relieve the everyday pressures of modern life before they become an absence issue.
Stress, however, is not the only cause of absence. There are a whole range of more general absence management programmes that are available for employers looking to cut down on general sickness absence. These can range from simple software packages that allow employers to monitor and report absence efficiently, to telephone lines manned by occupational nurses that provide important management information and advice on the management of individual absences. Again, these can be stand-alone services or form part of an occupational health proposition.
Employees may sometimes need a long-term solution to their problems, both in the workplace and through their private life. A counselling and trauma service is one such solution that can offer support to employees that are going through a difficult time, and can help them to deal with the issues and allow them to return to work.
These are not the only systems that can offer ways to reduce both short and long term sickness absence. Employers themselves need to do as much as possible to reduce the likelihood of any absence problems by implementing a number of schemes in the workplace.
Firstly, educating staff about health issues can help them to understand more about what they can do to limit their own absence rate, for example offering information on ways to improve their lifestyle. This can take many forms, including specific health awareness events targeted at certain groups (e.g. giving up smoking), health awareness fairs/seminars or simple poster and leaflet campaigns.
Wellness (or wellbeing) services can also work to improve the atmosphere in the workplace, as well as increasing motivation amongst employees and reducing turnover rates. These services range in type across a broad range of programmes such as: health screening, relaxation treatments and massages, corporate sponsored gym memberships and web-based ‘healthy lifestyle’ programmes.
The business case for employee health and wellbeing is very strong; ignoring the problem of sickness absence could lead companies to lose their competitive edge. Therefore, taking a proactive approach puts the employer in control of the situation, and can help create a much better working environment for employees – which, in turn, can increase staff retention.
In the current economic climate it is very unlikely that any informed employer will take much persuasion that employee sickness and absence needs to be addressed. Employee health and wellbeing is, therefore, a very good place to start.
Colin Micklewright is head of group IP development at Canada Life.