What is your sickness absence rate really telling you?


Really interesting piece Chris, and I agree that the business world could do so much more in terms of focusing on how do we ensure our people are 'performance ready' to be the best they can be and do ...

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If more employees are present in the workplace more often, employers need to ensure they’re as fit for purpose as possible

‘Hi, I won’t be coming in today - I’m ill/got a migraine/unwell/tummy bug/bit under the weather/can’t speak…’

We’ve heard them all before and, when the email goes around the office, it’s often the elephant in the room.

If this happens more often than not in a working week, it’s perhaps time to consider what this kind of behaviour is telling you about your organisation – rather than simply judging the ones calling in sick.

Last week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released some interesting findings around work absences. These were interpreted by The Guardian as showing that work absence due to sickness has halved in the past two decades.

However, looking through the full report, it’s clear that there’s far more to the figures than such a headline would have us believe.

It seems that if you’ve not got a long-term health condition, then absence rates have declined, but if you’ve got a long-term health condition, absence rates have gone up. Meanwhile, if you’re a manager or senior official your rate of absence will be lower than the rate of people in other roles. And mental health conditions are accounting for about 8.5% of all absences (8.8% for women, 8.5% for men).

That said, if we take the findings that there has been a reduction in sickness-related work absence at face value, this may well suggest that some of the recent trends in workplace culture (shorter working weeks, flexible working, mental health awareness) are paying off.

But does a reduction in sickness absence mean there is a parallel increase in productivity? With more people around more often, at times that work for them and in a more supportive environment, surely productivity should be on the up.

It might be assumed so, but actually the change in figures and working practices doesn’t mean the job is done. It simply shows the importance of the job that now needs to be done by organisations to ensure that the people now present in the workplace more often are being supported to be 'fit for purpose'.

This means organisations need to become experts in human performance and in making a concerted effort to constantly build the mental, physical, emotional and technical readiness of every person so they feel ready to meet the demands of everyday performance.

The demands that people face at work are pretty clear, so it stands to reason that organisations should be preparing their employees proactively to be able to meet them, in the same way that coaches in sport holistically prepare their athletes to meet the specific challenges of their discipline.

'Fitness for purpose’ should be a source of healthy paranoia for all businesses. Proactively worrying that employees haven’t been prepared mentally, physically, technically and emotionally as thoroughly as they should have been should be seen as a positive. Alongside this, there should also be a commitment to build psychologically-safe environments.

By focusing on these areas, we will see a shift away from obsessing over KPIs that only measure outputs towards obsessing over KPIs that are more to do with how ready people are to meet their daily challenges. The business world’s obsession with measuring outputs, and incorrectly labelling anything that can be measured as a KPI, has done little to help people at work feel prepared to meet their challenges. So if absence rates decline and the obsession with measuring outputs doesn’t, there’s just going to be more people at work focused on the wrong things and not being as productive as they could be.

So if you're tracking absence rates in your organisation, think about what they are telling you about your people. If you’ve got more people present more often, are you ready to play your part in ensuring that they’re as fit for purpose as possible?

Chris Shambrook is a performance expert and director of PlanetK2


Chris, great thoughts and interesting analysis of the data. We've all gone in to work when we didn't feel so well. Probably, even at times that we should have stayed home. If for nothing else than to prevent passing along to our colleagues whatever it is that we have. But, many times people also don't go in, when they actually could. This can be a symptom of several things, as you point out, Chris. Fit for purpose is clearly one, and it could also be a sign of low engagement as well. If one is not really engaged and feel they are making a difference, they will let little things get in their way of doing what they need to do. Employers must take steps to ensure they are taking care of their people. I have said many times that if we get the people part correct, the other stuff will all fall into place. It's all about the PEOPLE.


Thank you for digging deeper into this topic, Chris. As you know, I have a version of my keynote titled 'Why The HR Department Should Be Called The High Performance Department', and my contention is aligned with what you've raised throughout this article - how do we deploy all of our available resources to help our employees turn their unique talents into mastery? Unfortunately, we haven't overcome the first challenge (mindset) or the second challenge (org framework) to be able to get to work on implementing such performance-minded opportunities. We seem to be tinkering around the edges rather than ripping down the old model and rebuilding it, like we would if it was a product or service we were offering. PS: I'm writing this from the workplace...I decided not to call in sick today.


Hi Gregg. Totally agree and there's such a lot going on here that it seems important to control as many of the controllable as possible and if you're not proactively looking after people to be as ready as possible to thrive at work, then you're simply finding out what your absence and presenteeism (and engagement) levels are when you haven't tried very hard at some very influential stuff!


Really interesting piece Chris, and I agree that the business world could do so much more in terms of focusing on how do we ensure our people are 'performance ready' to be the best they can be and do the best work they can possibly do, every day. It comes back to the performance v's results focus - if we're relentlessly focusing on the inputs that we've determined will deliver the right outputs, then the outputs will follow. We can track the outputs, but without focusing on the right inputs, how will we ever know why we're getting the results we're getting? I wonder what could be achieved, and how differently people might feel about work, if this was the standard approach in business.


Yes, Sarah. Time for a Paradigm Shift so we change the expectations of everyone and move towards building organisations where being FIT FOR PURPOSE is focused on people rather than systems, processes and equipment! Thanks for the thoughts.

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