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January absence triples twice in past two years

A return to office working, political turmoil and the cost of living crisis could be to blame -

Absences tripled year on year from January 2021 to January 2022 and again to January 2023, according to data from HR software BrightHR.

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, said this spike correlated with a return to office working.

He told HR magazine: “In the years of the pandemic, and immediately following it, many organisations were still operating a remote working model, which typically saw employees taking fewer sick days and opting to work through their illness from the comfort of their homes. 

“However, we are now seeing a shift back to pre-pandemic working models with more and more workers in the office full-time. As such, we are seeing sickness rates increase, particularly as January is usually the month where cases of seasonal sniffles and sickness surge anyway.”

Read more: Sick leave hits 10-year high in cost of living crisis

Political and economic turmoil could also contribute to more absences, according to Rob Baker, founder of workplace psychology consultancy, Tailored Thinking.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “To feel healthy people need to feel part of a healthy environment. And unfortunately, looking at issues in the UK and globally, there are lots of environmental indicators that show poor external health. 

“In the UK we have the NHS crisis, cost of living, uncertain economy and political unrest. Internationally, there are wars, conflicts and crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. Not to mention the climate crisis. Poor external environment can negatively impact on our personal wellbeing levels.”

Baker added that the impact of the pandemic on mental and physical wellbeing has continued for longer than expected.

He said: “Whilst Covid might be something that we don't talk or think about regularly anymore, we are still feeling its impact. The long tail of Covid means that many of us have not got over the withdrawals it took from our personal wellbeing banks.”

However, Price added that the numbers could signify a healthier approach to presenteeism.

He said: “On the face of it, having your full team working might sound like the more productive option. But in reality, there’s a risk of presenteeism which could mean that productivity, effectiveness and quality of work seriously dips.

“While a spike in sickness sounds like every employer’s staffing nightmare, it could actually mean that employees are taking the time they need to facilitate a speedy recovery and to return to work refreshed, rather than working through their illness and instead prolonging it.”

Read more: A third of day lost to performative work, study finds