Neil Buck: Sickness absence stats at lowest ever but still a major headache for SMEs

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According to the latest ONS figures for 2016, workers have reported the lowest level of sickness absence since records began in 1993.

Approximately 137 million working days were lost from illness and injury in 2016, equivalent to 4.3 days per worker, the lowest rate since 1993, when it was 7.2 days.

Unsurprisingly, coughs and colds accounted for almost a quarter of the days lost due to sickness in 2016, at 34 million.

The second most common reason for not turning up to work was musculoskeletal problems e.g. back pain, neck and upper limb problems, which accounted for 22.4% of days lost.

Mental health issues including stress, depression, anxiety and more serious conditions such as manic depression and schizophrenia resulted in 15.8 million days being lost, equating to 11.5%.

However, despite the stats indicating it’s a better situation now than ever before, in my experience sickness absence is still one of the most common and frustrating issues for employers to have to deal with.

It is either long term sickness or short term intermittent absence that causes problems, including challenges to ensure the work gets done, filling the gap, colleagues being aggrieved due to the absentee (especially if they feel it isn’t genuine, which can cause distrust and disharmony) and so on – all impacting on the bottom line in a negative way, either directly or indirectly.

If employers want to mitigate the impact, they need to think about how you can nip the problem in the bud early doors before it becomes accepted or the norm.

It’s important to note that managing absenteeism isn’t about trying to ensure that every single employee is always present and correct – they’d be robots otherwise!

Even with the best people management policies and procedures, it’s highly likely that you’ll still have to pick up the phone now and again to be told that an important member of your team can’t make it into work today.

Still though, there are certain things that you can do to make sure that the occasional absence doesn’t spiral out of control, and become a real problem for your business.

Clearly outline your expectations

If you don’t already have an absence or managing attendance policy, then this needs to be a key priority.

You can’t expect staff to follow your guidelines if they don’t even exist!

A good policy or procedure will outline arrangements for calling in sick, identify trigger points that indicate that absence has reached an unacceptable level, and will be clearly communicated to all staff e.g. in a staff handbook.

Of course, your policy won’t be worth the paper it’s written on if it doesn’t become part of the way you handle it each and every time – ‘the way you do things around here’.

Consistently applying it is fundamental; management need to be confident with putting it into action, and it’s vital that the same rules are applied to everyone.

If you have staff members with a disability, then there will be extra considerations that need to be made.

Hold return-to-work discussions

After any period of absence, whether it’s two days or two months, there should always be a ‘return-to-work’ discussion between the individual and management.

It’s important to establish the reason for the absence, what if any medication they are on and whether it affects their ability to do their job in any way, assess what you might be able to do to support that person back into work, and follow the procedures outlined in your policy.

Even when things are so busy, make sure that these conversations are always marked into the diary.

When they’re carried out correctly, then can help you prevent a whole load of potential issues.

Get medical advice too so you can make an informed opinion if the absence goes beyond four weeks e.g. their doctors report, independent medical opinion by an occupational health specialist or use the national Fit for Work telephone referral service – you will need the employee’s consent.

Consider reasonable adjustments to get staff back into their roles

Treat each case individually, and always liaise with the employee to discuss their needs and preferences.

You might offer a phased return, reduced working hours for a set period of time, or extra assistance with carrying out tasks.

If you’re unsure about what you could do, talk to the individual in question to establish a way forward that will help them.

Take a flexible approach to managing staff

Ask yourself whether it would be feasible, from an operational point of view, to add some flexibility into how working schedules are managed.

From time to time, could you allow staff to swap shifts, or catch up with their work later in the week?

As long as you have firm boundaries in place, this kind of approach could help you to minimise problems.

If you can accommodate it then why not do it – you will have a more committed and happier employee as a result. But it’s a fine balance between keeping your staff happy, getting the job done, and not setting precedents you may regret later.

Knowing the law and what statutory rights exist that grant time off for different things will also ensure you don’t mistakenly not permit such rights that exist.

Be proactive

Dealing with sickness issues is much harder than preventing them in the first place.

There are positive changes you can make to how you promote physical and emotional wellbeing in the workplace, and these are far more effective than efforts to problem solve once the damage has already been done.

There are loads of simple but effective ideas and strategies open to you to enable a holistic approach to manage sickness absence.

If absence is an issue in your business, then you need a considered and careful approach to managing it and when you get it right the benefits can be worth it in the long run.