How SMEs can tackle employee absence

Employee absenteeism is a reality that all businesses need to face. Costing the UK economy billions of pounds every year, staff sickness often has the biggest impact on smaller businesses. Many SMEs are unsure where to turn when staff absence is having a devastating effect on their bottom line.

Here’s our guide to reducing employee absence – with some fairly simple suggestions which you can action straight away.

Changing the workplace culture

Create a culture where employees can be proactive in creating a healthy work environment for themselves. If your staff can recognise when help is needed, they are more likely to share this information with you before it becomes a chronic problem. Then it’s down to you to take action.

For instance, back pain is one of the largest reported reasons for sickness absence in the UK. Something as simple as a request for a workstation assessment could prevent long-term sickness, and of course increase productivity. An ergonomic assessment should be regular event. But our working environment, and our bodies, go through changes all the time. Feeling supported to ask for help, will encourage staff to approach you and aid a quick resolution. And that supportive, helpful culture in turn, will also boost wellbeing and morale.

“A healthy culture should be the cornerstone of your business. By fostering a community where Department Managers work with staff members to build a supportive, transparent culture – where employees are listened to, you’ll see productivity soar and sickness absence take a dip.”

Jayne Jaquiss, Peeps HR

The cost of a workstation review by an occupational health professional or an expensive ergonomic chair may seem like a big investment, but it’s likely to save you thousands of pounds in the long run.

Of course, it may well be that the solution isn’t an expensive one – a piece of software to encourage regular breaks from the PC, reduced hours or lighter duties, or workshops that teach staff how to take responsibility for their own health. All of these simple actions send a message that the health of your staff is important.

You have a duty as an employer, under The Health & Safety at Work Act, to provide a safe and healthy working environment. But by taking things a step further, and by doing more to promote a genuinely caring culture, your staff can accept the opportunities available to them and keep themselves healthy at work.

Here are 3 things to consider when tackling culture change within the workplace:

Start at the beginning – Department Managers are crucial in shaping the culture of your business. By asking the right questions at interview stage, you can determine if this person is going to inspire a healthy workplace culture and work with their team. For existing Managers, these skills can be developed with training. Your management team are the heart of your organisation – invest in them so they can promote the culture you’re trying to build.

Build trust – It’s easy to build trust in an organisation. When employees can approach you at the start of a health problem, and you deal with the issue in the correct way – the ripple effect is massive. When staff feel valued and cared for, culture problems and in turn, sickness absence, will reduce.

Promote compassion – Early intervention with long term sickness is key. If your workers believe that their health matters to you, if the sickness policy is clear and you are available to listen and take action to help, you’ll see a rise in productivity and a boost to your bottom line.

Presenteeism and stress-related absence

It’s easy to focus on absent employees when discussing sickness, but what about the health of the present workforce? Those staff members who work excessive hours, are not taking annual leave and have no work life balance. Not only are these people putting their health at risk, but they are putting your business at risk too. Allowing staff to work in this way can lead to issues with quality of work, poor relationships with colleagues and clients, and ultimately the loss of these key members to long term sickness.

Stress, anxiety and depression are all linked to Presenteeism. And, according to a report from CIPD / Simplyhealth – cases of Presenteeism has tripled since 2010. But despite these worrying figures, only one in ten organisations is currently meeting the basic legal requirements for reducing stress in the workplace.

“A reactive approach to Presenteeism is not enough. Organisations need to look further than sickness absence rates. Employee wellbeing should be top of the agenda and companies need to put as much focus on Presenteeism as they do on absenteeism.”

Jayne Jaquiss, Peeps HR

Presenteeism is difficult to track and manage properly, and if handled incorrectly could have worrying medical and legal repercussions. Peeps HR say, “Simple changes you could make might be limiting out of hours communication, giving senior staff the understanding and tools to spot and manage the issue, and reviewing your absence policy.”

Dealing with employees who take a ‘sickie’

It’s not just sickness absence or Presenteeism that can cause a problem for your business. Even if a staff member is not “sick”, they may need time off work. And the way in which you manage this will have a big impact on your business.

Although flexible working is on the rise, some companies do not acknowledge that many people aren’t motivated at 9am every day, but they are firing on all cylinders at 5pm. We all need personal days too – for children’s GP appointments, a new carpet being laid at home or times when you are feeling completely unmotivated and although not officially ill – you won’t be at all productive in work.

“Why not consider ‘Duvet Days’ or offering more holidays? They can be planned in advance, so are much less disruptive than a “sickie”. Or allow staff to be completely responsible for their own workload and hours. You may find your staff take more ownership and have more pride in their work if given the option of flexible working hours.”

Jayne Jaquiss, Peeps HR

What else can you do to manage illegitimate sickness absence?

  1. Track employee attendance and patterns of absence by using a software package.
  2. Have clear sickness absence policies and practices that are communicated effectively.
  3. Support and communication between management and staff can help reduce time off work due to stress at work, an overwhelming workload or low morale and disengagement.

Sickness absence can be an expensive and time-consuming issue to manage, particularly for SMEs. Changing the culture of your business, dealing with stress-related illnesses and managing dishonest absences are difficult areas for small businesses to deal with. And when you have no HR department to rely on for expert advice, it can prove costly for your business.

It may well be that you don’t have the need for a full-time HR provision. And so, having an Independent HR Mentor to offer you best practice advice, based on working knowledge and practical skills – could be just what you need to protect your bottom line from sickness absence.

If you need to tackle sickness absence but don’t know where to begin, call HR Peeps on 01453 297557 or email to discuss the options available. Alternatively, please take advantage of a free consultation by using our online form.