Across the UK, more people are expected to pull a sickie today than on any other day of the year.
After ‘Blue Monday’ a couple of weeks ago, the first Monday in February continues the theme of dreariness and depression of post-Christmas winter. With freezing temperatures, the days shrouded in darkness, and spring still seeming a long way off, it is hardly surprising that a lot of people are feeling under the weather.
Given that sick days and reduced productivity because of illness cost UK firms more than £77 billion, there is a clear incentive for employers to put measures in place to ensure a healthy and happy workforce.
The number of days employees take off sick has actually been reducing over recent years, with the ONS reporting that while staff were absent for an average of 7.2 days per year in 1993, by 2017 this had fallen to just 4.1 days.
Emma Long, Commercial Director at BizSpace, explains that a number of factors might be behind this, including improved general health amongst the UK population, but also a growing trend of presenteeism (a feeling of job insecurity that leads to a fear of being away from the office) and improved technology, meaning that people are more likely to work from home if they feel unwell than take a day off sick.
Yet, while the statistics appear to be moving in the right direction, they could be masking a more serious problem. Our always-on culture means that switching off has become a sign of weakness. Whereas people previously might have used the excuse of not wanting to infect others to take the day off and forget about work for 24 hours, the ability to work remotely has led to people staying away from the office but still doing a full day’s work using their laptop and mobile devices.
On the surface, this looks like a win for employers, but it could actually be having a negative impact by reducing productivity over the longer term and storing up health problems for the future. Sick days serve a useful function of giving people a break when they need it most. With no excuse to stop work when dealing with minor diseases, people might not take the time they need to recover fully, leading to potential further complications and a negative impact on long-term mental health.
By focusing on reducing the number of sick days their employees take, companies are looking at the wrong thing; the focus instead should be on improving staff’s long-term and general health.
This can be done in several ways
Offering a set number of duvet days each year – days when staff can choose to have the day off at the last minute – could help give employees a licence to take a day off when they feel in need of some time to recharge. While this may feel counter-intuitive, employers should see this concept as simply replacing the sick days that staff no longer take, and a way of avoiding employees taking prolonged periods of sickness leave as a result of serious or mental illness.
Making the office a healthier environment will also have a positive impact. Offering a free fruit bowl to help boost employees’ immune systems, or giving out free tissues and hand sanitiser for staff to have on their desks can help tackle the spread of minor illnesses, while encouraging a healthy work-life balance through low-cost initiatives such as lunchtime walking groups and book clubs can help keep levels of stress and anxiety in check.
Other perks may require a higher level of investment but can also pay dividends through increased staff productivity. From gym membership to free yoga or massage sessions in the office, encouraging employees to live healthy lifestyles and take time out to prioritise their mental and physical wellbeing will help them to be more focused on their work when they come back to it.
And while prevention is better than cure, giving employees the tools and resources to deal with health issues effectively when they do arise will help ensure that ill health is not allowed to fester. Introducing mental health first aiders and health insurance packages could be part of the solution, but perhaps more important are managers’ attitudes towards employees’ health issues. Sending workers home if they come in and are clearly unwell – either mentally or physically – helps counter feelings of presenteeism, and encouraging staff to take the day off, rest up and focus on getting better rather than tapping away at a laptop from their sickbed, will give them the approval they need to switch off and recover.
Technology has had a powerful and – in many ways – positive impact on the way we work. But as we get used to the advantages it brings, we also need to be more disciplined to ensure we remain healthy and productive. Just because we can now work anywhere and at any time doesn’t mean we should.