Business health depends on employee wellness

Written by
Dr Yousef Habbab

22 Oct 2015

22 Oct 2015 • by Dr Yousef Habbab

Are you an understanding manager?

According to research by PwC,* the annual cost of sickness absence to the UK economy is an estimated £29 billion, with each employee taking an average of nine days off per year. It’s fundamental to good people management that employers should be fair and understanding when dealing with ill or injured employees – whatever the cause.

To help to achieve this, HR professionals should take the lead on ensuring that their company both has in place and effectively communicates its sickness absence policy to all employees. In addition to setting out the company’s approach to sick pay, it should explain what to do if employees are ill and the support the company offers. This should include an explanation of the company’s procedures for sickness absence reporting and certification, for keeping in touch when off sick and for returning to work when they’ve recovered.

Be supportive, dont pressurise

To manage absence effectively, a balance needs to be struck between encouraging ill or injured employees to return to work at the earliest suitable opportunity and not pressing them to come back while they are still unwell. Getting this wrong can lead to presenteeism, where still ill employees turn up for work and put in a sub-optimal performance. This can be a significant issue for we know from our own research that two thirds of employees go to work even if they are ill.** A too early return to work can even lead to an extended period of absence should the employee suffer a relapse. And, for some contagious conditions, a too early return can result in the illness spreading to other members of the workforce.

For employees who are absent for longer periods, it is important for employers to stay in touch both to see how they are progressing as well as to let them know they are missed by their team. In most cases this is best effected by line managers, whom HR can support with setting up a suitable contact protocol that meets both employers’ and employees’ needs. Staying in touch should help boost the employee’s morale as well as enable employers to track progress with their recovery and identify things they can do to expedite it such as funding private sessions with a therapist or access to occupational health (OH) support. OH professionals’ input can be especially helpful as their insight and experience are invaluable in helping employees achieve a timely, successful return to work – for example, by advising on appropriate rehabilitation programme which can include a phased return to work, amended duties, altered hours and/or workplace alterations.

Prevention programmes

As well as helping to manage sickness absence, HR professionals can help to improve employee wellness by introducing prevention programmes. This may be as simple as promoting flu jabs for at-risk employees in advance of the winter flu season. At a more strategic level, HR can take the lead on the development and implementation of programmes that support and strengthen employee resilience. Integral to this is an approach that recognises the importance of both physical and psychological wellbeing. A good place to begin is building and sustaining a positive, supportive workplace culture where employees are encouraged to lead healthy, active lives and, if they should become ill or injured, actively supported to secure suitable care. As a part of this, employees should be encouraged to take time off when necessary for check-ups and medical appointments.

While employers may be nervous to advise employees on lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, these can significantly affect physical and psychological health and, in turn, performance and productivity. Even simple measures such as encouraging a healthy, balanced diet (which employers can facilitate by ensuring their canteens, vending machines and lunch delivery services offer healthy choices) and regular exercise (which they can facilitate through gym discounts and by promoting physical activity such as walking groups during lunch-time breaks and company sports teams) can make a big difference. 

By dealing with sickness absence quickly, sensitively and professionally, HR professionals can go a long way towards minimising the disruption it can cause. Prevention, early intervention and allowing ill or injured employees sufficient time to recover are all key to positive attendance management and employers that get this right will be rewarded by a workforce that performs to the best of its ability. 

*PwC (2013). The rising cost of absence:

**AXA PPP healthcare (2014). Two thirds of Brits go to work when sick: