How to foster a healthy workforce as sick leave figure drop

By Vicki Field, HR Director at London Doctors Clinic

Gone are the days of sleeping off a bout of illness in bed! Figures released by the Office for National Statistics suggest that a sniffle and a sore throat won’t get in the way of work for most Brits, and reveal that the average number of sick leave days taken by UK employees has almost halved in the past 25 years.

But what does this mean for employers?

Having a motivated and productive staff force is the backbone of a good business.

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A company needs to balance an effective approach to absence management with the understanding that people can be genuinely ill; supporting unwell employees is an important part of any absence management strategy.

There are numerous theories around what causes people to attend work whilst ill, ranging from employees’ fearing being managed-out of a company or not being paid for being absent, to a culture of ‘presenteeism’ where any absence is viewed negatively.

Attending work whilst ill can be unhealthy for employees as it prolongs their period of ill health. There could also be long term mental health risks for staff members who are physically burnt-out or unwell but feel obliged to work. Also, on a very practical level being at work doesn’t necessarily meant that sick staff are being productive, and they are more likely to spread germs to other colleagues.

Vicki Field
Vicki Field

Why you need a well-being strategy

None of us function at our best when sick and it only makes sense that healthy individuals are better placed to contribute towards productivity. Every company should have a well-being strategy to ensure their employees are as healthy as possible. A positive by-product of implementing this would be having higher motivation and productivity levels, as employees feel more valued.

A well-being strategy pulls together all the interventions a company can apply to support the mental and physical health of employees. It can include partnering with organisations such as an Employee Assistance Programme or a private GP practise to provide on-site medical support. It can also include lower cost practises such as encouraging walking clubs or weight loss challenges across the company. Workforces are different in every company; a legal firm will have different challenges to a high volume call-centre with shift work. The key is to understand your people, and the specific challenges or stresses they’re exposed to at work.

A recent report by Reward and Employee Benefits Association (REBA), Employee Wellbeing Research 2018, provides insight into the fact that most employersare likely to provideEAPs, whereas employees preferred cash-bought benefits such as dental insurance and medical cash plans. What this shows, is the importance people place on their health and the value that they perceive in accessing a private dentist or doctor. One of the best ways to develop a relevant well-being strategy for your company is to simply ask your people what they want.

There can be a cost to a well thought out strategy, so measuring the effectiveness of the strategy is the key way to communicate the bottom line benefits to the board. Have absence rates decreased? Has motivation increased? Has turnover decreased? Looking at specific KPIs, as well as talking to your people, can assist with understanding which elements of the strategy are working, and which need tweaking.

What can you do to proactively ensure a healthy workforce

Here are some of my top tips for having a healthy culture in this regard.

  • Introduce a well-being strategy designed to support the mental and physical health of your employees
  • Ensure a combination of low cost practises such as encouraging staff to take a lunchbreak, with a reward practise such as introducing PMI or access to a private GP
  • Introduce flexible working; employees may not feel well enough for the trip into the office and sitting in it all day, but they feel able to keep on top of emails at home
  • Ensure managers are trained in absence management, and always hold a back to work interview to ensure that the employee is well enough to return and to capture any underlying issues
  • Proactively identify employees who are clearly too ill to be at work, and send them home.

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