“On the sick” epidemic!

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, sickness absences have sky-rocketed.

36.8 million working days were estimated to be lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2021/22.

On average, sickness in the UK currently costs employers £781 each year per member of staff, the highest rate since 2009. This has had a staggering impact on the economy, with absenteeism costing the UK approximately £20.6 billion in just the last year.

The cost of absenteeism varies across industries, with professional occupations recording the highest losses from absenteeism. In some industries, absenteeism can have an indirect impact. This of course has a knock-on effect for businesses, with high absenteeism diminishing individual productivity levels and team performance, which can impact the company profits. The indirect costs of absenteeism can also include reduced quality of products, services and safety issues.

84% of short-term absences (up to four weeks) are reported by organisations to be commonly caused by minor illnesses such as colds, flu, stomach upsets etc., with another common cause being COVID-19. Whereas for long-term absences (four weeks or longer,) mental ill health such as clinical depression and anxiety is found to be the most common cause at 57%, with musculoskeletal injuries following closely second. Stress is also found to play a part in both short- and long-term absences and is reported by organisations to be between 30-40%.

With no sign of sickness absence levels improving, employers must ensure that they have robust strategies in place to support employees and protect themselves. If absences are managed poorly or employees are left to ‘drift’ alone whilst on sickness absence, this can affect staff attrition, cause low morale, impacted productivity and in some cases, increases in workplaces disputes which could then lead to Employment Tribunal claims.

Providing early intervention strategies for employee wellbeing management can help avoid increased stress levels for all involved, burnout for those covering the workload of the absentees and the level of absenteeism. As such, pre-emptive strategies are found to achieve higher returns than ‘reactive’ ones.

What steps can you take to effectively manage sick absences?

To ensure that you are effectively managing employee absences at work, you should:

  • Create and maintain an open workplace culture so that employees are willing to voice concerns regarding workplace behaviours which may impact on their health.
  • Have up to date policies in place to deal with absences effectively. These should be clear on when a formal process is triggered, but also allow for employees to be managed via an informal process.
  • Employees are more likely to share information regarding their health conditions if they believe that the culture of the organisation is to rehabilitate rather than be punitive.
  • Ensure you have managers who are competent in being able to manage sensitive and difficult conversations.
  • Provide training to those employees who struggle to manage difficult conversations.
  • Conduct welfare meetings throughout a period of absence so that employees are not left to ‘drift’. The purpose of these meetings is to share information about the organisation and understand the status of the health condition and support needed, which will often change throughout the absence period.
  • Fully inform employees of the organisation’s expectations regarding standards of attendance and keep communicating those standards.
  • Don’t just rely on a Bradford factor score (if this is your measure of choice), an employee’s absence should be considered from a more holistic view.
  • Record accurate absence levels and maintain measurable data.
  • Conduct constructive and meaningful return to work discussions to tackle issues at an early stage, setting out proactive steps for employers to take to increase the likelihood of employees staying in work following their return (e.g., reasonable adjustments).
  • Embrace flexible working where possible and encourage the process.
  • Follow fair and non-discriminatory procedures.

Capital Law Employment Investigations

If you require support on how to manage sickness absence or to understand the risks involved, please contact our Employment and Immigration team.

Similarly, if you are faced with poor staff engagement and a deteriorating workplace culture, our team of experienced and impartial employment investigators can provide hands-on support and a deep dive review on the culture to help you build an improved and more efficient workplace. Please call us for an initial chat on 0808 196 3151 or learn more here.