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The Millennial Cost of Sickness

Traditionally, employers count the cost of sickness by measuring the number of days “lost” as a result of employees being absent from work due to sickness. However, with many employees now capable of working from home, there are varying degrees of “loss”.  Furthermore, a recent survey conducted by Aviva UK Health reported that UK workers are now 3 times more likely to go into work when ill rather than be inclined to “pull a sickie”. 79% of those surveyed advised that they had worked whilst they had felt unwell as they feared the volume of work they would face when they ultimately returned to work. Conversely, only 23% of those surveyed admitted to having being absent whilst feeling perfectly healthy.  Employees may also be concerned by financial consequences of their absence should their remuneration relate to output or attendance. These tools may serve to ensure that the employee remains at work when the employer may be better served in the long run in encouraging the ill employee to remain at home until they are adequately recovered.  

The survey demonstrates that official figures showed fewer days were lost to sickness absence last year than in any year on record.  When records began in 1993, the equivalent of 7.2 days per worker were lost. Last year however, the Office for National Statistics confirmed that sickness absence last totalled 137million working days, equating to 4.3 days per worker. 

Is this “presenteeism” a benefit to the employer though? Arguably, maintaining a healthy and present workforce is in the employer’s better interests. Encouraging ill employees to remain at home in order to promote their prospects of a more efficient recovery may serve the employer in better stead than potentially exposing the remaining workforce to the illness, undoubtedly resulting in the employer being less able to control the impact of consequential absence. 

How may this be achieved without incurring a greater, and perhaps unnecessary, cost to the business though?  Employers should still monitor absence in order to be able to address issues in respect of persistent short term absence which may be unnecessary, and certainly disruptive to their business, but perhaps it would be prudent to avoid an excessively “big brother” approach, therefore perpetuating the employee’s fear sickness absence may result in a penalty to them in the future, and demonstrate how the business is able to cover employee’s workloads whilst absent. 

Dr Doug Wright, medical director at Aviva UK Health agrees that “businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge that their absence can be effectively managed”. Employers should therefore ensure that the encouragement of presenteeism does not in itself create a false economy whereby the employee’s attendance at work whilst sick affects not only the employers output in the short term, as the employee is operating below par, but also in the long term by exacerbating the effect of illness by spreading it to other colleagues. In addition, employers should consider whether the “benefits” of modern day working, ie access to work emails or remote working, may also impair the employee’s recovery and therefore increase the “cost” of the absence. 

Operating an open and fair sickness absence policy should satisfy employees that their absence will be effectively managed and therefore lessen the “fear” of reporting sick, but employers should be careful to ensure that they maintain an appropriate balance of control in order to prevent abuse of the system.

For more information please contact Nicola Gray or Martin Sinclair, or call 01224 632464.



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