Colds, flus, headaches and stomach bugs – certain illnesses can strike at any time without warning. You’ll feel terrible for a day or two, but you’ll be back in action in no time. While these short-term illnesses will cost you in terms of lost hours, managing them is relatively simple. But long-term sickness absence is a different matter entirely.
Some long-term conditions can put your employees out of action for weeks, or even months. This costs UK businesses nearly £30 billion every year.
Many in HR seem to think that they’re powerless when it comes to long-term sickness. People are going to get ill, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
This isn’t necessarily true. There are many things you can do to minimise the impact that long-term sickness has on your business, while an intelligent workplace wellbeing program can make it less likely that your employees will succumb to sickness in the first place.
This is your essential guide to long-term sickness and HR. First we’ll help you understand the issues surrounding this form of absence, before offering some tips on how you can fortify your business against serious disruption.
What is Long-Term Sickness Absence?
Long-term sickness is one of those concepts that means slightly different things to different people.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has a few guidelines concerning long-term sickness. For them, a period of absence that lasts anything up to four weeks counts as a short-term sickness. Long-term sickness is a period of absence that lasts four or more weeks. This could include a number of episodes of absence, each lasting less than four weeks, which they define as recurring short-term sickness absence.
Four weeks is a long time in the workplace. If an employee misses two or three weeks of work, the cost to your business could be immense. Indeed, one organisation worked out that each individual sick day costs employers £107.85. So if an employee misses four weeks of work, it could cost your business £2,157. And according to NICE, that would be classed as a “short-term absence”!
It’s perhaps for this reason that some organisations are a lot more stringent when it comes to defining long-term sickness. The CIPD, for example, considers any condition that causes eight consecutive days of absence as a long-term sickness. This makes sense, as it’s usually after a week of absence that many employers demand to see a doctor’s note.
What Does Long-Term Sickness Mean to You?
The point is, it’s up to you to define what “long-term sickness” means for your organisation. You’re in charge of defining your own absence policies, and you’re responsible for ensuring they’re effectively communicated to every level of your organisation.
So whether it’s a set period of days or a set period of weeks, it’s important that you establish a definition of long-term sickness that makes sense for your business.
How much is each individual employee’s day worth to you? How much would each day lost cost you? At what point would a period of absence start to become a real problem, as opposed to an inconvenience?
Because long-term sickness won’t just cost you in terms of lost output and productivity. It might also have a negative impact on the rest of your team, who might have to work extra hard to make up for any shortfall.
How you define long-term sickness absence will inform the policies and strategies you implement to minimise its impact on your business.
What Sort of Conditions Can Result in Long-Term Sickness?
The Telegraph recently compiled a list of the top 10 causes of long-term absence in the workplace.
There’s a lot in that list that you might expect to see, like back pain, musculoskeletal injuries, chronic conditions like asthma, acute conditions like heart attacks, and severe cases of common illnesses like colds and headaches.
But the number one cause of long-term sickness just might surprise you. It’s stress.
Mental ill health also ranks high. Indeed, according to the latest findings by the CIPD, 56% of UK companies consider mental ill health as the most common cause of long-term absence.
UK businesses lose more than 91 million days to mental ill health issues each year, which can cost up to £15 billion in productivity. Mental health charity Mind claim that as many as one in six UK workers is currently facing mental health problems.
So the bad news is that we appear to be reaching a crisis point when it comes to stress and mental ill health in the workplace, and this is coming at a devastating cost. The good news is that there’s much you can do to help tackle this issue.
How to Reduce the Impact of Long-Term Sickness on Your Organisation
Two things will help reduce the impact of long-term sickness on your organisation:
- An intelligent employee wellbeing program
- A good absence management system
There are also certain considerations you should take to ensure that any employee returning to work after a period of long-term illness can ease back into their role with minimum stress and disruption.
Workplace Wellbeing and Long-Term Absence
If you prioritise your employees’ wellbeing, you might look forward to increased job satisfaction and reduced absenteeism.
Many workplace wellbeing initiatives are specifically designed to champion regular exercise and healthy eating. Healthy employees tend to get sick less, and there is strong evidence that physical exercise can help people cope with stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
We have many excellent resources on employee wellbeing. Here’s our guide to mental health issues in the workplace, and here are seven simple ways to manage stress in your organisation.
You could also read our list of the world’s best employee wellbeing programs. It provides strong evidence that the most successful companies are those that take care of their employees!
Effectively Managing Long-Term Sickness Absence
Our absence management software is full of useful features that will help you lessen the negative effects of long-term absence on your organisation.
You can run reports on specific absence types to help you better understand the impact that absenteeism is having across your organisation. And once you understand the underlying causes of absence, you’ll be able to devise a strategy to deal with the issue.
With automated Bradford Factor scoring, you can set trigger points to alert managers once employees show patterns of potentially damaging absenteeism. That way, you can intervene and help before the issue becomes a problem.
Help Your Employees Ease Back into Work
It’s important to set clear policies to help any employee returning from a period of long-term absence ease back into work. You need to ensure that they’re not placed in a position that could interfere with their recovery.
A flexible working environment could help here. If an employee is well enough to work but not quite well enough to return to the workplace, let them work from home, if possible.
Legally, this sort of measure is known as a “reasonable adjustment”. Another reasonable adjustment might involve finding a new role, or a new set of responsibilities, for an employee who’s no longer able to do their own job as a result of their long-term illness. For instance, you might find a desk job for an employee who’s no longer able to do a more physically-demanding role.
It’s only when you’ve made a reasonable adjustment, and it’s been rejected, that you might consider dismissing an absent employee. This should be considered an absolute last resort, though.
Finally, make a point of conducting return to work interviews whenever an employee returns from any unplanned absence, whether it’s short or long-term. This might help you to identify certain measures you could take to help the employee, and to make further absence less likely. Return to work interviews is yet another process that our absence management system makes easy.