How to address the real reasons behind employee sickness absence


Everyone gets sick and needs to take a day off work...sometimes.

How to address the real reasons behind employee sickness absence

There’s no avoiding the fact that sickness absence has a big impact on business. It’s not just the cost of lost days, but the impact on staff morale, productivity and service delivery that gives employers cause for concern.

An estimated £18 billion is lost every year due to absenteeism, according to the report: Change at Work: How Absence, Attitudes and Demographics are impacting UK employers (2017). This figure is predicted to grow as the number of sick days taken each year has been rising since 2011. If the current trend continues, the costs of absence may reach £21 billion by 2020, and a sizable £26 billion by 2030.

Understanding the reasons behind sickness absence

The truth is, there are many diverse causes of employee sickness absence.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found in its sickness absence in the labour market (2017) analysis that the highest rates of sickness absence were in women, older people, people with long-term health conditions, smokers and public health sector workers.

As the workforce continues to age, there are also more instances of musculoskeletal issues including, back pain, repetitive strain injury and carpal tunnel syndrome. Reoccurring medical conditions such as asthma, migraines and chronic pain conditions are responsible for many short-term and long-term absences.

But despite the rise of age-related and chronic health conditions, the CIPD’s Absence Management (2016) research found that 75 per cent of businesses reported minor illnesses as the main cause behind staff absence. These include colds, coughs, flu, headaches and stomach sickness. However, ‘illegitimate’ time off, such as for family-related or personal issues, was also reported by the survey respondents as one of the top five reasons for absence.

What about sickness absence caused by mental health issues?

In recent years, there has been a worrying increase in individuals with mental illness.

The ONS sickness absence in the labour market (2017) found that, 15.8 million of the 137 million sick days were for a mental health issue – and those were only the cases reported. By contrast, only 34 million days were lost to minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds.

It’s not surprising that company boards are starting to talk more about mental health. The CIPD’s Absence Management (2016) survey also found that two-fifths of organisations had seen an increase in mental health problems among employees. But this is an issue that has traditionally been kept in the dark. Though developments in this area are promising, many businesses still don’t have appropriate strategies in place to help employees cope with mental health issues.

How can you support the health and wellbeing of your staff?

Unfortunately, sickness absence and mental health still carry a stigma – particularly in the workplace.

Many employees believe that in taking time off to address their health, they may jeopardise their careers. But a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does nothing to address the underlying health issues that can hinder employee performance. In fact, it may even prevent employees from seeking help for minor issues that may evolve into larger problems (not to mention more missed days) if left untreated.

Here are some practical ways to reduce sickness absence:

  • Avoid harmful language that may discourage employees from seeking treatment.
  • Train managers to spot the signs of both mental and physical illness and encourage staff to seek medical support.
  • Create a supportive environment where employees feel they can safely disclose a health problem.
  • Remember mental health can affect both managers and non-managers. It does not discriminate between hierarchies. HR strategies need to encompass supporting staff at all levels of the business.
  • Hold return to work interviews after time off. Discuss how the business can help alleviate any work pressures and consider how wellbeing strategies can be better used.
  • To effectively reduce absenteeism, ensure your staff are able to access medical support when they need it.

As Madeleine McGivern, head of workplace wellbeing at charity Mind, said to the BBC: “If you are unwell for any reason, you should be able to work in a place where you feel you can say ‘I’m unwell today because I’ve got an inflamed back’ or ‘I’ve got really high feelings of anxiety at the moment’ – they’re actually the same thing.”

This article was provided by Babylon Health.


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