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How can employers avoid the worst effects of 'sickie day'?

Given that today (1 February) is often labelled 'national sickie day' by various institutions and the media, I could not let it go by without comment.

This is supposed to be a day of high sickness absence levels, which is not surprising with routine winter afflictions, like colds, flu and general tiredness. Such feelings of fatigue can be caused by a seasonal depression and whether it is dull weather (Seasonal Affected Disorder caused by low levels of light), post-Christmas financial worries from credit card bills and ongoing recession-related debt, or the thought of a holiday being a long way off, this depression is understandable when added to the normal everyday stress that impacts on people's performance and attitude to life and work generally. Ignoring the underlying causes of these absences by trivialising them as ‘sickie days' ignores the risk to long-term employee health and business continuity.

So it is surprising how many companies do little about such absences, both by failing to understand how to prevent them and by the way they manage sickness absence generally. While many organisations now routinely monitor sickness absence statistically, when it comes to managing absence, current approaches tend to see illness as incompatible with work and work as a barrier to recovery. Nor do they appreciate that actually attending work is generally better for an employee's health and state of mind than sitting on a sofa at home.

Our own experience has shown people are in fact happier and healthier when they are in work, providing the recovery and return-to-work process has been managed appropriately. 

So what should employers do to minimise the impact of sickness on the business? First, let's appreciate the size of the problem. According to the CBI/AXA Absence Survey last year, a total of 172 million working days were lost through absence, costing UK business and the public sector close to £20 billion. Individually, the cost to large firms can run into tens of millions, and in a company of five staff every absence is a 20% loss of manpower.

Yet of all the risks associated with running a business, managing sickness absence is controllable and limitable if companies adopt positive and engaging policies with employees.The Healthcare RM mission and mantra - prevent, manage, mitigate - forms the basis of a pro-active consensual approach to good health for the individual and the organisation.

  • The board should first understand the clinical, legal, occupational and financial issues and how illness and injury affects and costs the business


  • Managing attendance should be a key element of effective business management and thus should be part of a line manager's responsibility


  • The health risk management strategy should be to identify ill health and injury risk at a very early stage preferably prior to an absence or within the first week of an absence


  • Employees need support to understand the changes in clinical practices, to be able to ask questions about treatment choices and to actively engage in their own recovery 

Underpinning the active management approach are two key factors:

Good data

Collation and analysis of data should be one of the foundation stones of the development of an attendance policy. Senior management should agree what data must be collected and why, how often the data is reviewed and what action will be taken from any findings.

Clear policies

The provision of good, sound (practical) and easy-to-understand policies is important for line management, HR and employees alike. Good communication on why the business wishes to proactively manage illness and injury and then how the business will achieve this is critical to successful management of sickness absence.

Policies need to be devised for attendance; for how sickness and return to work will be managed; for drugs and alcohol; for stress (and understanding the causes); and for promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Good management will seek advice from those with expertise and practitioners in the field of health risk management on health risk assessments, sickness absence management policies, complex case management, rehabilitation and return-to-work programmes, carelines, health and wellbeing communications, trust management and employee assistance programmes.

How to avoid the worst effects of ‘sickie day'

As well as encouraging healthy activities and lifestyles - possibly by organising or supporting an activity-related challenge, or organising a team-building event in the great outdoors which focuses on exercise and social activities - why not consider a late start one morning, arrange lunchtime activities (especially if you know the sun is going to shine), or simply encourage staff to take the time to socialise, maybe giving them a project to do. Taking a positive and active approach that demonstrates you understand and care will bring positive results for employees and the business.

Pamela Gellatly is chief executive of Healthcare RM