The loss of working days due to illness has a huge impact on organisations’ productivity as well as for the wider economy. Jenna Gadhavi looks at the background to sickness absence, and what can be done to improve the picture
A google search of ‘workplace wellbeing’ now brings up a staggering 19,800,000 results.
It’s finally dawned that a happy and heathy workforce is the key to increased productivity and a reduction in absenteeism, and every employer worth their salt is making sure that their company has a wellbeing strategy in place….or are they?
Although there’s no denying that wellbeing in the workplace is rising up the agenda in the UK - and deservedly so – it seems we still have a long way to go.
Despite the fact that 88% of the respondents Reward surveyed believed staff wellbeing is ‘important or very important’ to the overall success of their business, just half of those respondents actually have a corporate formal wellbeing strategy in place.
Why is it that many employers run ad hoc wellbeing activities throughout the year, often linked to national awareness raising days such as World Mental Health Day or National No Smoking Day, but far less implement a year-long strategic wellness programme?
Top down, bottom up
For far too long, staff wellbeing has been the responsibility of the HR department to tackle, when in fact wellbeing should be part of the company culture and practices, with senior management leading by example.
Rob Drewell, group head of reward and benefits for CPP Group sees this happening very successfully where he works. He says: “In my organisation, four out of the six board members are very active. They’re triathletes, they run regularly and are generally very active people. Because of this they place real importance in encouraging wellbeing strategies in the workplace, and so have insisted we implement a formal wellbeing framework.”
But this feedback doesn’t just come from the top down. He explains: “A lot is also fed back from our colleagues across the group about what they value and what they’d like to see. These little things are not expensive, but they are valued, and that’s a real positive.”
Employers are increasingly geared towards their workforce being ‘happy, healthy and here’ but our survey found that mental health issues, musculo-skeletal issues, and work/life tensions were cited as the biggest risks to wellbeing in the workplace. This shows that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve both mental and physical health.
On a more positive note, just over half of respondents have introduced wellbeing products or benefits to help with prevention if these risks, as well as improving communications of the wellbeing benefits and services available to employees.
But for those have not implemented a robust enough wellbeing strategy to tackle these risks head on, sickness absence continues to be a problem.
Pulling a sickie
Labour market analysis by the Office for National Statistics found that an estimated 137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016. This is equivalent to 4.3 days per worker.
Sickness absence rates are higher among older workers than younger workers as they are more likely to develop health problems. Changes in the UK pensions market in recent years will only drive older workers to work beyond state pension age more, so this needs to be addressed by companies sooner rather than later.
To add further complexity to the sickness absence issue, 84% of our survey respondents agree that some of their staff ‘sickness’ is really related to other factors, for example disengaged staff, caring responsibilities and lack of annual leave, so companies have a wider problem to tackle there. This raises a bigger issue because disengaged staff will lead to a drop in productivity, and ultimately losing employees to other companies.
Pressures such as caring responsibilities can take their toll both mentally and physically if not supported correctly, and this links back to two of the key wellbeing risks identified by our respondents.
‘You had to be there’
On the other end of the scale, the survey results also highlight what happens when employees choose to continue to come to work when they are sick.
Almost half (45%) of our respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “we have a problem with presenteeism.” The UK has an ‘over-attendance’ culture whereby far too many workers put in excessive hours, or continue to come to work despite being ill.
So what lies at the root of this unhealthy attitude? It could be an after effect of the recession when employees feared absence from work could jeopardise their job security, the fear of an ever increasing workload could be deterring workers from taking time off, or it could be the financial implications of taking sick leave.
Alarmingly, many employees feel that senior management and colleagues would make them feel guilty, or accuse them of being workshy for taking time off.
Whatever the reason may be, working while unwell or spending unnecessarily long hours in work has a detrimental effect on productivity, so line managers and the HR department should focus on supporting staff, and shifting the culture to ensure that presenteeism isn’t thought of as the norm.
Companies need to ingrain wellbeing into their company culture, make it part of their values, rather than an ‘add on’ task given to the HR department. And once that has been done successfully, regular monitoring and development is key.
Starting off with a very simple approach, and then evolving that framework and learning from it will ensure that your workforce continue to be ‘happy and here.’