Absenteeism is accepted as part of a healthy workplace ecosystem. There are the employees who are often unwell, the employees who get the odd cold a couple of times a year, and the trooper employees who will be at their desk every day, rain or shine, sick or healthy. Absenteeism is usually seen as something uncontrollable and even unimportant, a fact of life, like the weather. It can be inconvenient and annoying when projects are delayed, but it can be heart-breaking when a colleague deals with a chronic illness.
The everyday, unexciting nature of absenteeism is exactly what makes it so insidious. Any good employer understands that sometimes people get ill and they shouldn't be punished for it. As a result, we tend not to look at the underlying issues causing absenteeism, let alone for any solutions. Beyond workplace jokes and gossip, employers often don't understand the reasons why someone might choose not to come to work.
The cost of absenteeism
Absenteeism is costing the British economy £100 billion every year. A study in 2016 conducted by the on-demand hiring platform Catapult found that chronic absenteeism costs the average UK business £554 per employee, per year1. In 2018 XpertHR found that the average loss to employers was more like £570 per year2.
This isn't just the cost of salaries. Companies often fail to take into account other losses beyond direct salary when calculating the financial impact of sick leave. Xpert HR recommends that companies also look at the cost of reduced customer service and missed business opportunities. This explains why, according to Xpert HR's research, even though the median number of days lost to sickness absence fell in 2017, the cost to employers has increased.
Absenteeism is a real issue that employers need to face head on. If we work to understand the reasons employees take sick days, and offer targeted support, we can also minimise the impact of absenteeism in our workplaces.
Who takes sick days, and why?
Catapult found that nearly a quarter of UK firms report "non-genuine absence" as the number one cause of short term absence for their workers.3
Let's take a look at some of the common absence 'types' you'll find in a workplace.
Work until you drop
The Work Until You Drop type could break their arm and still only be fifteen minutes late for work. A determined work ethic coupled with some good luck or a very high pain tolerance means that this person rarely takes a day off. Instead, she'll be there first in the morning and last in the evening. You can count on her to bring down the whole office's average sick leave rate.
It's important to keep her inspired: you don't want an office drone, and her high work ethic shouldn't be taken advantage of but instead appreciated and shaped so she can achieve her professional ambitions. And make sure she takes all her holiday allowance – she needs the break.
Out the door at the first sign
It would be unkind to call him a hypochondriac, but this employee is always in touch with his health. A tickle at the back of his throat will have him examining his tonsils; a mild cold will have him in bed. The good news is this employee will never be Patient Zero in a flu that works its way around the office, and part of his attentiveness is certainly courtesy for his colleagues. And he's not a liar: this employee is almost definitely ill, or on the brink of it, by his own definition.
The best thing to do is support this employee, or find ways for him to look after his health in ways that lessen the impact upon his work. Subsidised gym memberships, home office options, and some kind of medical benefit are all good starting points.
Every office has at least one. They could be the best or the worst worker in your team, and they have a suspicious habit of falling ill on a Monday after a big weekend, or on a Friday just before a holiday. This is the non-genuine absence employers point to, and unfortunately, it's not so much a workplace issue as it is a part of the human condition.
Aside from fostering the kind of workplace culture that makes people want to come to work – people who enjoy their jobs are much less likely to skip a day – there's not much to be done about the skipper. But reducing the amount of absence employees take for genuine albeit preventable reasons means that the skippers will be less a real problem, and more a loveable nuisance.
No matter how healthy a carer is or how much they want to be at the office, external responsibilities mean that the carer has to miss more work than they'd like. The carer might be a parent, or someone looking after an elderly relative. Increasingly, the carer might be both: the Office for National Statistics estimates that 1.3 million people in the UK are part of the "Sandwich Generation".4
You can help support your carer employees by offering benefits such as home office or a childcare option. If you think one of your employees is struggling, make sure to put them in touch with Carers UK, a charity that supports carers financially, logistically and emotionally.
The on-and-off chronic
This employee isn't paranoid about their health, but they take more than the average amount of sick leave because of ongoing problems. It might be back pain that they're struggling to find the right treatment for, or an ongoing toothache they can't afford to fix. Sometimes this employee is fine for months at a time, and then a bad turn will see them in bed for a week. For a variety of reasons, this employee is struggling to get the healthcare they need, and it's impacting not just their work but their quality of life.
A good stable of medical benefits can genuinely transform this person's life.
The common factor
What's notable about all of these employee types is the root cause for their absence: happiness and well-being. In the end, all absenteeism is about happiness and what a person needs to feel secure in their health. There are those – like the out the door at the first sign type – who need a lot of security. There are those – like the carer – whose happiness is dependent upon the health of their family. The skipper takes happiness in the form of escaping the office, while the chronic's happiness is being directly impacted by a health problem they need help to solve.
The different types of absence can feel overwhelming, or like a natural part of life that can't be fixed. But if we look at this underlying thread of happiness, it becomes clear that there are very real solutions. And if we approach workplaces with a culture of flexibility and transparency, the solutions are simple and productive.
How can employers reduce absenteeism?
A lot of conversation around absenteeism puts the onus on employees. If they weren't so sickly, or lazy, perhaps absenteeism wouldn't cost companies so much. But a healthier and more productive way to fix the situation is to empower employees to take better care of their health.
One of the best ways to improve health and happiness in a workplace is to invest in a good stable of employee health benefits. Health benefits start at a very inexpensive level and can make a huge difference in employees' lives.
Here are a few ideas to kickstart your employee benefits strategy:
- Gym memberships: Appealing to employees (like the Out The Door) who are concerned about their health; also useful to foster great employee culture and keep the Skippers from skipping too often.
- Second medical opinions: Expand your employees' options and access and empower them to take control of their own health. Second opinions are a great option for employees like the Chronic, who might be struggling to solve their medical issues.
- Counselling: A good counselling service linked to your workplace can help everyone, but especially Carers, who are under a lot of pressure and need support.
- Medical concierge: Every year, more Brits are looking for accessible alternatives to long waiting lists and unaffordable treatment. One solution is to travel to European destinations where procedures are more affordable; another is finding the right clinic in the UK for their needs. But navigating healthcare systems can be overwhelming and confusing. Investing in a benefits partner who provide a medical concierge service makes finding healthcare at home and abroad accessible. Medical concierge assists when choosing a medical provider, comparing treatment costs, and navigating all of the logistics of booking and travelling for medical care.
- Home office: Being more flexible about where employees work and offering the option of working from home can benefit everyone. Someone who doesn't want to spread their cold can negate the issue by staying home; parents with sick kids can look after their children without falling behind in work; even a Skipper with a mild hangover might be more inclined to "show up" for work if they don't have to get out of their pyjamas.
The goal of all your benefits should be to empower employees to think actively about their health. By shifting the focus to keeping employees healthy and happy, rather than preventing absenteeism, you might find that absenteeism is a symptom of larger problems than an issue in its own right. This opportunity to generate employee health and happiness is ripe.
Do these reasons for employee absenteeism ring true to you? What are you doing to create a culture of caring about health and happiness into your workplace?
1 Absenteeism costing average UK business £554 per employee, finds research, Recruitment International, May 2016.
2 Employees taking less time off sick, yet costing employers more, Personnel Today, July 2018.
3 Absenteeism costing average UK business £554 per employee, finds research, Recruitment International, May 2016.
4 Office of National Statistics, 2019