Top tips for minimising sick days

Employee absence is a big problem for employers. Losing work days is a costly prospect – and one that is becoming increasingly common.

Research suggests that the number of working days lost to sickness is on the rise following the end of the recession. With many businesses still in a fragile financial state, it is important that you consider way to manage employee absence – while maintaining a good relationship with your employees.

What are the causes of sick days?

If you have noted an increase in the rate of employee absence there are, broadly speaking, two causes. These are: genuine sickness or inability to work; and ‘pulling a sicky’.

There been a suggestion that the post-recession increase in sick days shows that employees are taking more days off without a justifiable excuse. Of course, this is unlikely to be the case. In fact, it is far more likely that employees had actually been taking fewer days off during the depths of the recession, even though they were genuinely ill, simply because they were scared of losing their jobs.

This illustrates one of the most significant problems associated with managing employee absence: the necessity to reduce absence as far as possible, while still recognising that sickness does occur. Trust is at the heart of the solution.

How can I minimise sick days?

Your efforts to minimise employee absence will fall into two areas: efforts to prevent unjustifiable absence, and efforts to minimise the chance of sickness or injury that will lead to justified absence. You may also want to consider ways to mitigate the impact of absence once it has occurred.

There are plenty of very simple steps you can take to minimise sickness and injury. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the most common causes of absence include: minor illness; back pain; and musculoskeletal injury.

Minor illnesses include colds, flu, and stomach bugs. Of course, trying to stem the tide of the common cold would be a task with which even King Canute would struggle. But you can help to minimise the risk of colds spreading by, for example, providing your employees with antibacterial handwash. You should also make sure that kitchen areas are kept clean, and that employees who have stomach bugs or flu are encouraged not to come into work and spread germs.

Musculoskeletal issues should be prevented and addressed by looking at the way your employees work. You are legally obliged to conduct a health and safety risk assessment in your workplace, and this should identify potential hazards that might affect your employees. In offices, back and neck pain are common results of poor posture. You need to be aware of these problems, and take steps to avoid them – for example by providing employees with good quality, lumber-supporting chairs.

If your business involves heavy lifting or other potentially physically stressful actions, you need to consider ways of mitigating these risks. You might need to give inductions and safety training, or provide your employees with special equipment. Again, this should be identified in your risk assessment.

You should also remember that stress is a major cause of employee absence. Often, workplace stress is caused by poor relationships amongst your workforce, or a sense that employees are being asked to achieve the unachievable. You should make sure that you remain on the lookout for potential friction, and that you take steps to nip problems in the bud.

You may also need to consider ways to minimise the number of days you lose to unjustifiable absence. There is, of course, no single solution to this; the tactics you choose will depend very much on your individual situation. But you might want to consider one or more of the following:

• Incentives for a zero absence rate across the year (bearing in mind that this might also encourage genuinely ill employees to come in which is generally not a good idea)
• Setting out a clear policy regarding what constitutes an acceptable reason for absence, and circulating this amongst employees.
• Offer extra days off for employees to carry out healthcare-related activities.
• Provide gym membership as part of your package of employee benefits.

What else should I remember?

Throughout the process of absence management, it is important that you understand and fulfil your legal obligations. Employees have legal rights to time off work, in addition to their standard holiday – for example when they are carrying out union activities or public duties. You should seek legal advice if you are in any doubt.