Is it really a cold or stomach bug - or is something else lying behind your staff absence levels? Maggie Williams explores...


February is right in the middle of cold and flu season, but not every staff absence is quite what it seems. To mark National Sickie Day, we look at 10 ways to make sure you know what’s really behind staff absence.

Understand the root causes: The CIPD’s Absence Management Survey showed that 24% of organisations say that non-genuine absence is one of their top five most common causes of short-term absence. 'Off sick' can be shorthand for any number of issues including having to look after a family member, going for a job interview, running out of annual leave, problems with line management, job design, work-related stress, fatigue, financial issues and disengagement with the workplace. Some of those may be short-term or a one-off, but others could be a symptom of a more deeply-rooted problem that requires more investigation and support.

Investigate flexible working:  Dr Jill Miller, Research Adviser at the CIPD says: 'Our research on employee absence finds that employers that offer flexible working are less likely to report illegitimate absence, which suggests that some employees might be pulling a sickie to give themselves the flexibility they need. The rise of the ‘sandwich generation’, those who are looking after elderly parents as well as children, means that employees needing flexibility for caring responsibilities is only going to increase.'

Develop an open culture around mental health: 'The number of organisations seeing an increase in reported mental health problems among employees has remained at a worrying level over the last few years,' says Miller. 'And this is just the number of reported problems – it’s likely that some unexplained absence may be due to mental health issues that people may not feel comfortable telling their employer about.' CIPD figures show that two-fifths of organisations claim an increase in reported mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) among employees in the past 12 months.

Help your staff to be financially well:   According to the CIPD’s 2017 Financial Wellbeing, the Employee View report, one in four workers reported that money worries affected their ability to do their job – rising to one in three in London. Lack of sleep due to financial issues, leading to physical fatigue, affected one in five employees in the survey. “HR has a key role to play in improving employee financial well-being and ensuring that their employers are able to build on this improvement through higher engagement, creativity and productivity,” says Charles Cotton, CIPD adviser, performance and reward.

Make sure line managers are well trained:  The old adage that 'people leave managers, not companies’ could also be the cause of 'sickies' Research in 2015 by analysts Approved Index showed that 42% of workers had left a job due to a bad boss. 'Neither employers nor employees can prosper in an antagonistic environment. Putting the emphasis on positive team interactions both inside the office and out will show you’re thinking in the long term,' says Nick Goldberg, CEO UK & Ireland of people management business LHH Penna.

Get to know your workers: No two members of your workforce will be the same when it comes to sickness absence. Two individuals with the same illness could diverge into presenteeism and absenteeism. Others might be bottling up problems in their private life that result in them having to take time off. 

Promote benefits to improve wellbeing or offer support:  If staff are struggling with personal issues, introducing benefits such as an Employee Assistance Programme may be one way to help. These typically provide confidential phone or online support to help staff with personal and professional issues that could be affecting their work. If you offer benefits to help staff with their general wellbeing, such as health cash plans, make sure everyone is aware of how to get the most from them.

Improve engagement: If staff are regularly taking 'sick' days, it could be a sign of wider disengagement with their work. That could be for any number of reasons, but making sure that people feel valued and rewarded financially and personally for a job well done is always a good starting point. According to research by LHH Penna, 33% of the UK workforce feels under-valued, 30% believe they are underpaid and only 37% would use the word 'rewarding' to describe their work.

Explore issues swiftly: Don't let problems fester. If someone has been off sick (legitimate or otherwise), make sure that line managers discuss it with them on their return. Building a good relationship between managers and their staff means that you're more likely to pick up health, personal and engagement problems more quickly, and put processes in support to deal with them. Goldberg adds: 'The best way of preventing poor turnout is asking the right questions.'

Use the sickness absence information that you collate: Tracking sickness absence and analysing the results can give clear insights into problems your staff might be facing. For example, if sickness absence peaks just before pay day, that could be an indicator that staff are struggling financially – but it’s important to really understand the reasons behind the figures, rather than jumping to conclusions. There’s no substitute for communicating well with staff and genuinely understanding what lies behind a ‘sickie’.