If there is an HR person in the land who hasn’t got a sickness absence issue on their ‘to do’ list, I’d like to meet them and shake their hand. Managing sickness absence can be really tricky, and it’s a rare week when I am not discussing this with a client. So, it’s no surprise to read in the new survey report findings of CIPD and Simplyhealth (Health and wellbeing at work (simplyhealth.co.uk) that sickness absence rates are at an all-time high. In fact, the worst that they have been for a decade, with average absence rates exceeding pre-pandemic sickness rates. 

Causes of post-pandemic sickness 

Conducted online from March to April 2023 with more than 6.5 million employees, CIPD and Simplyhealth have surveyed various issues of health, wellbeing and absence in UK workplaces. 

The results reveal that the top causes of short-term absences are still minor illnesses such as colds/flu, stomach upsets and headaches, with over 40% of the 918 organisations surveyed reporting that Covid19 remains a significant cause for absence. Musculoskeletal injuries such as neck strains or repetitive strain injury, including back pain were also commonplace.  Might this be down to employees, now working from home either part or full-time, finding that they are working using unsuitable equipment or work-stations? 

Of equal interest, mental ill health continues to constitute a significant cause of both short- and long-term absences, with 92% of businesses, employing more than 250 employees, reporting stress-related absence in their organisations. 

So, what can employers take from this? 

With autumn now here, cold and coughs are already increasing and Covid rates are also on the up. The ongoing impact of high inflation, high energy prices and increased mortgage rates may also continue to take their toll on an employee’s mental wellbeing. In other words, high levels of sickness absence are likely to remain. 

What can an employer do to reduce sickness levels?

With the Institute for Public Policy Research, this year, reporting that sickness absence is costing the economy as much as £43 billion per year, sickness absence is an expensive business. Helping your employees to protect their health makes good sense, not only in terms of acting responsibly, but it also makes sense commercially. With the above in mind, as an employer, you can play a vital role in supporting your people to better manage their health through workplace and wellbeing services.

Here are four preventative measures, which we think can be used to tackle soaring sickness rates:

1. Review and recirculate your absence policy and guidelines:  Employers were forced to rewrite their absence policies during the pandemic as employees were required to stay away from the workplace if they were displaying any of the symptoms of Covid. However,  employers may not have revisited their policies since. This may mean your employees may be confused as to when they can come into work and when they can’t. Do your employees have a good understanding of when they should be staying away from the workplace if they are unwell? No-one wants to see the return of the employee, full of coughs and sneezes, stumbling back into the office but are some staff being too cautious? And if an employee can work from home, to what extent are they encouraged to do so even if they are under the weather and would be better off tucked up in bed? Different employers will have different requirements, but it will always make sense to be clear on what you expect.

2. Conduct return-to-work meetings: Whether you’re looking to tackle short or long-term absences, return-to-work meetings can provide important insight into employee concerns and their fitness for work. As the name suggests, a return-to-work meeting is usually an informal conversation between a manager and employee about their absence and the reasons for it. These meetings enable organisations to track and monitor trends of sickness absence across their organisations and provide managers with a gateway to refer the employee on to other support, including employee assistance programmes, or occupational health in circumstances where disability and/or reasonable adjustments may need to be assessed.

3. Remember the impact of absence on the rest of the team: Employee absence, whether intermittent or long-term, will inevitably have an impact on the rest of the team. Make sure managers take steps to address this and ensure that the absent employee’s workload is shared fairly amongst colleagues. Look to build in other safeguards such as longer time-frames for delivery or temporary cover where a team is under particular pressure. A failure to take these steps may risk exacerbating the problem with more of the team going off sick due to excessive workloads. Excessive workloads are the most common cause of mental health related absences.

4. Implement a wellbeing strategy: A wellbeing strategy is not simply there to address concerns regarding mental ill health. It is integral to managing the main risks occurring in relation to all aspects of an employee’s health at work. Consequently, we are seeing many more employers investing in wellbeing as a strategic priority. When used effectively, a wellbeing strategy can signpost employees to immediate support, as well as including more long-term positive and preventative approaches to help people to thrive at work. Creating a supportive culture where employees are encouraged to speak openly about their health concerns at work, and upskilling managers to spot the signs and symptoms of ill health and stress at an early stage have been proven to help reduce high levels of sickness absence. 

The research from CIPD and Simplyhealth makes it clear that what employers need are health and wellbeing measures which work on prevention rather than cure, and where employees feel listened to. By doing this, employers have a much better chance of curtailing the costs and other consequences of soaring sickness absence.

If you would like to discuss this any sickness absence concerns within your organisation, please do reach out to your usual Burges Salmon employment contact for further assistance.