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HR employees' stress levels soar over Christmas period due to staff absence, according to Bupa

Far from winding down during the festive period, HR staff are suffering from increased stress levels due to work place absence, according to a report published this morning by Bupa.

The data, from a poll of 100 HR professionals, showed almost three quarters (71%) believe that December absence has implications for their HR team.

Over a quarter (28%) said that staff absence is a key factor in rising stress levels and one in five (20%) said that they spend considerably more time than usual looking for freelancers and temporary staff to plug the gap in the workforce. The HR team are working longer hours in December in over a quarter (28%) of these companies, and one in five (22%) is falling behind in other tasks owing to the extra workload.

In addition to the impact of staff absence on HR teams, there may be a hidden financial cost of sickness absence. Three out of five (59%) HR managers were unable to estimate the cost of December absence to their company, taking into account the cost of lost productivity, lost orders, temporary staff, overtime and any other costs incurred as a direct result. Just a quarter (25%) of HR managers were able to put a figure on this, with the average amount standing at £67,736.

Four in 10 (42%) believe the true cause of their company's rates of absence in the month of December is 'overindulgence' or 'illness resulting from overindulgence', although a third (33%) do believe that absence rates are caused by an increase in genuine illness at this time of year.

Almost half (46%) of HR professionals believed that women have the highest rates of absence in December. Just over a quarter (27%) thought that men were off sick more than women in December.

Jenny Leeser, clinical director of occupational health at Bupa, said: "The winter months do see an increased rate of absence caused by seasonal illnesses, but the effect of the festive party season on the workplace cannot be ignored either. In any case, with widespread absence comes an increased workload, resulting in the potential for increased stress levels for the HR team, as well as the rest of the organisation.

"All businesses should think about preparing themselves ahead of this December dip, supporting employees who are being placed under increased pressure and putting advance measures in place to prevent the drop in attendance, such as offering 'flu jabs and encouraging a healthy lifestyle."

Over three quarters (78%) of the companies surveyed have implemented policies to try to reduce December absence rates. Some companies take a hard line, with a third of companies (33%) calling employees in for questioning if they have more than three isolated days off sick in the month of December. One in five (21%) threaten to withhold pay from those discovered 'throwing a sickie' and 15% even threaten to fire those discovered to behaving in this way.

The most common method of preventing absence in December is encouraging employees to get a 'flu jab earlier in the year, with over a third (35%) taking this course of action. A small number of companies (11%) take a very different approach, making take-home hangover remedies available to all staff. Others recognise the value of exercise in a healthy lifestyle with 17% providing gym membership support to encourage staff to start their health kick in December.