Reducing sickness absence and increasing employee engagement: Part One
With a new financial year upon us now is a good time to get a handle on sickness-related absence in a business. A positive working environment has been shown to reduce the amount of time a business loses due to absence, but how do you go about creating an environment that people look forward to being part of?
As far as the newspapers are concerned, the modern festive season is bookended by two dates. The first, Black Friday, which we discussed in detail here, comes at the end of November and marks the start of the frenetic festive period.
Seven weeks later, Blue Monday inevitably arrives, accompanied by an array of downbeat headlines. Dubbed ‘the most depressing day of the year’, it’s said to be the point at which all of the festive glitter and optimism that accompanies a new year has finally been rubbed off. The wage packet’s been spent, mince pies and treats have been replaced with wilted salad and all of the New Year resolutions lie in tatters.
Long, cold winter
There’s a lot of pseudo-science behind Blue Monday. It’s widely perceived to be the date that the higher proportion of the UK workforce will take a duvet-day, even though creditable data is very thin on the ground. There have even been attempts to quantify the probable impact of the bleakest day with an equation that includes factors such as weather, debt and time since Christmas.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but behind the headlines, there is little doubt that lack of motivation and too much stress is a key driver of absence in the UK. Sickness absence is a huge issue for employers, not just in terms of the absence itself, but also the cover that needs to be arranged, the sick pay that has to be organised and the workloads that need to be rejigged, all of which nibble away at a company’s time and productivity.
According to the 2016 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Absence Survey, on average 6.3 days per employee were lost due to absence during the period covered. While this is an encouraging improvement on the 2010 data, when 7.4 days were lost on average, it’s still a notable amount, particularly when you add in the time spent rebalancing workloads.
Over the course of the next two articles, we are going to look at this problem from two angles. This week we’ll examine the practical things that companies need to do to ensure that their absence policies are correct and genuinely supporting employees. Next week we’ll examine the proactive steps that business leaders can take to create an engaged workforce that is less likely to succumb to Blue Monday’s cruel embrace.
Communicate your sickness policy
Having a clear sickness policy in place should be the first port of call. It should be the bedrock of all procedures for managing sickness absence, clearly stating responsibilities of both employees and their line managers.
It should cover:
- The steps every individual employee needs to take if they cannot come to work, such as who they should inform and when
- Required to provide medical certificates or ‘fit notes’
- When the company may require a medical report or a referral to an occupational health scheme
- Entitlement to sick pay and details of any workplace sick pay scheme
- The point at which an individual’s absence levels would trigger further action such as a review, investigation and/or disciplinary procedures
It should also set out the reasons behind having a sickness policy which, at its simplest, is to help ensure that sickness absence is managed fairly and consistently throughout the business and to reduce the impact of absences on colleagues and customers.
The policy should be circulated throughout the company and easily accessible on your intranet as well as discussed at any induction meetings.
New technologies and ways of working mean that the work place is changing rapidly, so it’s also important to make sure that sickness policies are revisited regularly to ensure that they are keeping pace with reality on the ground.
Conduct back-to-work meetings
It’s good practice to require employees to attend a back-to-work meeting with their line manager when they return from absence, particularly if it’s been prolonged. This sends out the message that you’re monitoring absence and that the company treats it as a serious issue.
It’s much easier for an employee to take a ‘sickie’ if they know that no questions will be asked about the absence and they can slip back to work unnoticed. People are less likely to feign illness when they know they are going to have to have a one-to-one conversation with their boss the following day.
The focus of these meetings should be to express concern and offer support, with sensitivity to individual circumstances.
Empower line managers
Ensure line managers have the knowledge and confidence to manage absences within their team effectively. This should include:
- Skills for communicating with absent employees
- How to record absences and what forms to use
- When further action/investigation is needed
- Where they can get further support
Training should be provided where required
Line managers are in a positive position to minimise absence as they should have a personal relationship with their staff. This means that they should be in a good position to spot potential issues before they become problems. Working closely with their team members also means that they have an opportunity to influence behaviour by keeping their staff motivated and happy in their jobs.
Ask leavers to discuss problems
Exit interviews or questionnaires when employees leave the company can help identify any issues that are making workers unhappy. People are more likely to be honest if they are leaving the company anyway.
An exit interview also reflects well on the company in the eyes of the people that remain. People leave for a variety of reasons, not all of them completely negative, but it can be good for morale to be seen as listening.
Encourage a culture of open communication
When employees feel a sense of responsibility for their work and loyalty to their team, they’re much less likely to phone in sick on a whim because they won’t want to let their colleagues or clients down. People will also be more willing to talk openly to their manager if they have a health problem and need support from the business and understanding from their peers.
While much of this is common sense, it is always worth testing not only that you have the right policies in place, but also that they are being adhered to. With these basics in place, in the next article we’ll look at the proactive steps that firms can take to give their staff the best chance of feeling motivated and valued in the workplace.