Employees taking sickies cost companies a lot of money. But the way to address the problem should be a positive company response that provides a range of preventative solutions says Duncan Brown

How are you feeling today? A bit under-the-weather? Stressed out, maybe? Why not take a day off. Rod Eddington, British Airways chief executive, is so concerned about levels of staff absenteeism that he issued a reminder in the airline’s internal magazine last month. “If you’re healthy and paid to do a job by BA, it’s your duty to come in and do it.”
Here at CIPD we are just assembling the results from our annual survey of employee absence in 1,300 organisations. BA’s experiences are far from being unique.
Its level of staff absence of 16 days per employee per year (that’s over three weeks) compares with the average nationally of nine days, 7.5 in the retail sector. But for almost a fifth of companies the average was four weeks or more.
The survey is one of our most popular with the press and inevitably fuels headlines about skiving and the national pastime of taking a sickie. But the issue is a serious and an expensive problem for the UK.
Overall around 4% of total employee working time in this country is lost to sickness absenteeism each year, at a cost of some £11 billion. The associated significant growth in spending on the National Health Service reflects the fact that 10% of us are in not good health according to the last national census, with a quarter of us still smoking and a rising fifth classified as obese. It could be more accurately renamed the National Illness Service.
Beyond chief executive exhortation, the response of companies revealed by our survey is fairly predictable. Half set reduction targets, 80% have disciplinary procedures to root out unacceptable absence, three-quarters carry out return-to-work interviews and 48% have or plan to restrict their sick pay schemes. Many appear to agree with the newspapers’ assessment.
But dig a bit deeper into our findings and you find that a more wide-ranging and insightful response is becoming evident. Stress has overtaken back pain and acute medical conditions as the major reported cause of absence.
Absence levels are higher in companies where job insecurity has increased, with a third attributing this to factors such as demotivated staff and low morale. Psychologist Rob Briner refers to this phenomenon as “the toxic organisation”.
The ratings for the most effective methods, rather than the most prevalent, for addressing absence include: working with occupational health specialists; line manager involvement and training; changes to working patterns; and even employee assistance and health promotion programmes.
The movement goes under the slightly uncomfortable nomenclature of wellness or health management. Rather than dealing with the symptoms and policing the problem, the approach looks more broadly at addressing the causes, and making a more wide-ranging and preventative set of interventions.
Rather than asking the question as to how we stop them taking sickies, these organisations are asking how we build a healthy workforce that is able and wants to contribute as fully as possible to our success. Some of our other surveys suggest that up to a third of employees are either so bored
or stressed at work that it damages their health and performance.
So, if you are lucky enough to work at Asda, you might be offered a free 10-minute massage, one of a comprehensive range of voluntary and wellness benefits. Telephone bank First Direct has a similar wide-ranging programme, including flexible working options and a whole battery of free advice and treatments to quit smoking.
Standard Life Healthcare introduced its health and well-being programme in 2002, including on-line and on-site health advice, exercise classes and free fruit days. The benefits for staff and the bottom line are already evident, with a 5% cut in absenteeism and 22% reduction in staff turnover.
So what’s your firm’s approach - attempts at forced attendance or promoting willing engagement?
As Tom Davenport explains in his book Human Capital, we need to replace outdated notions of people as costs with that of assets - people who invest their human capital, their ability, their efforts in the firm and like any investor expect a healthy return. But I’ll talk more on the subject of human capital next month.
n Duncan Brown is assistant director general, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development