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When does staff sickness start becoming a matter for the board?

You do not need me to tell you that sickness absence costs your business around £554 per employee every year. We all know the statistics –  some companies will do slightly better, some slightly worse and most are content to leave absence management to HR. Like energy, telecoms and marketing, absence has become an accepted business cost.

The thing is, if someone came along and offered to audit your telecoms, save you thousands of pounds and improve your bottom line you might be mildly interested. It is quite possible that you have been through such an exercise and reaped the rewards. I would like to suggest that the same approach is taken when tackling the office “sickie”.

Auditing absence

Most absences from work are due to short-term illnesses and are isolated incidents but there will be staff members who repeatedly take time off or who are absent for long spells. Your HR department will have a good handle on absenteeism statistics and which employees are suffering from longer term injury or ill health. Managers will also be a useful source of information when it comes to determining where there are patterns of short term but persistent absenteeism. However, from a production point of view, the business should also gain insight on whether individual employees are experiencing stress, anxiety and other mental health related illnesses, although this can sometimes be difficult to spot as it manifests in different people in different ways. It may be even harder for managers to manage, particularly if they are unaware of the full extent of their colleague’s difficulties. In fact, many shy away from raising their concerns with an employee because they are scared of saying the wrong thing or being accused of discrimination. It goes without saying that support and training can do wonders here.

Long-term illness, including mental health, not only costs money in terms of missed working hours, they can have a profound impact on employees’ ability to carry out their roles effectively and the cost impact this has on a business is real, though hard to quantify. There are ways to mitigate the effect on the bottom line, which I will look at next.

Cost reduction strategies

Returning briefly to wasteful habits, I have seen a large number of businesses successfully implement employee engagement initiatives to save energy and reduce waste which encourages staff to turn lights off when rooms are empty and come up with ideas for efficiency. The cost savings can be significant and the budget needed to implement these strategies is minimal.

Similar effects can be generated by introducing low cost engagement initiatives to save on absence costs. The introduction of flexible working can be hugely beneficial to someone who is going through prolonged medical treatment, for example. It can also help other employees to achieve a better work life balance and reduce stress. Creating a culture of awareness around mental health can also reap rewards, making it easier for employees to share their challenges and seek support.

One strategy that I have seen in action that works very well is where board members themselves have shared their own experiences of mental health with the workforce. This is a powerful way to break down barriers and remove traditional stigmas, but also identify where working practices themselves can be better designed to reduce adverse impact on health.

Other boardroom initiatives that have been found to be successful include awarding extra holiday days for achieving varying personal targets and predicting when large numbers of unplanned absences are likely to occur, such as happened during the recent World Cup. Proactive bosses can be prepared for such events and plan for them, which might involve having open discussions with staff in advance to seek their ideas for overcoming the challenges of mass unplanned absence. In the process they are making them aware of the impact their absence can have on the business and their colleagues.

Taking this a step further, some senior managers have a policy of sharing sickness levels and the cost impact with the entire business, regularly, as a way of raising awareness. The success of this policy will depend on your business and the culture within your teams. If you don’t think it would work, perhaps there is a deeper culture issue that is begging to be tackled first and this is definitely a matter for the board rather than the HR team.