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Recrutiment & Employment Confederation

Managing Sickness Absence in the Workplace

Advice for employers

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Written by Jelf Jelf

Sickness absence is part of everyday life, and modern employers respect the need for their employees to rest fully before returning to work. But when you consider the £29 billion cost for UK businesses covering sickness, it makes sense to look at the underlying causes of sickness absence.

Common causes of sickness absence

The primary causes of sickness absence can be placed into the following categories:

  • Minor illness
  • Back pain and musculoskeletal issues
  • Mental health issues including stress

While the first two catagories might be out of your control, employers can take steps to avoid absence due to work-related stress and other mental health issues.

One in four people in the UK struggle with mental health at some point in their lives. Investing in understanding and supporting mental health in the workplace is therefore essential to a productive modern workforce.

Anxiety and depression

These are two of the most common mental health problems (CMHPs) that lead to sickness absence. But what exactly are they, and how can you spot them?

  • Anxiety is feeling worried, uneasy or fearful a lot of the time. But more than that, anxiety is the inability to rationalise these worries to a point where they become distressing and disrupt daily life.
  • Depression affects people in many different ways – from lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness, to losing interest in the things they used to enjoy. Physical symptoms include sleeping badly, losing appetite and various ‘psychosomatic’ aches and pains.

The link between CMHPs and work-related stress

The symptoms of work-related stress are similar to anxiety and depression – manifesting as loss of appetite, fatigue and exaggerated emotional states. Of course, people can suffer work-related stress without having anxiety and depression. But work-related stress has also been known to aggravate existing mental health problems, or even be the primary cause of a mental health problem developing.

Being able to identify causes of stress in the workplace is therefore an important step toward dealing with them appropriately, and employing strategies to prevent CMHPs developing.

What can you do to minimise stress in the workplace?

Lack of understanding is one of biggest issues when it comes to managing sickness absence, particularly when absence is related to mental health.

Here are some key strategies for managing workplace stress more effectively:

  1. Keep things monitored - It’s a good idea to record and monitor absence. This will enable you to see when there’s regularity of absence, or patterns emerging.
  2. Review the results - People suffering from CMHPs might not realise it in its early stages. Analysing absence records and staff appraisals can help identify trends. Return to work interviews and sickness absence meetings are a great platform for opening up support pathways, and can benefit both parties when approached with sensitivity and honesty.
  3. Offer flexibility - Some employees may experience stress through difficult time-management outside the workplace. Family commitments, such as juggling childcare and clashing schedules, can cause people’s stress levels to rise and may affect attendance and productivity at work.
  4. Formal training - Formal training in identifying, understanding and helping others manage stress for all your staff could be an invaluable tool in reducing stress-related sickness absence.
  5. Improving life at work- Improved diet, exercise, better sleep and social activities are well documented in preventing stress. Why not try to incorporate these into your workplace lifestyle? From simple information boards to setting up gym discounts, providing on-site facilities and supporting running or walking clubs, there’s a number of ways you could help to improve the day-to-day lifestyle of your staff.
  6. Income protection - You might also consider products that provide your employees with greater financial security for the future. It’s easy to overlook how work-related stress could be exaggerated by financial unease.
  7. What about ‘just talking’? – Regular and open conversation with your employees can help build a clearer understanding of the triggers of stress in your workplace, and come up with ways to manage and reduce it.

There are a number of ways Jelf can help you raise your game when addressing sickness absence in the workplace; from risk management and employee benefits, to commercial finance and financial planning. Get in touch today.

This is an abridged version of an article that original appeared on the Jelf website. For sources and footnotes, please see the original article