· Features

What is your sickness absence rate really telling you?

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