· 2 min read · News

Should the causes of reduced staff absence be a concern for HR directors?


Absenteeism levels are plummeting according to new Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures, down from seven days to just four per employee. It's something that HR professionals have been aiming at for decades - but the causes and implications are more of a concern.

More competition, fear of losing jobs and missing out on promotion (as well as the 24/7 connection with work through digital devices) are creating a form of addiction, with working becoming the only way of easing anxieties. It's a difficult balance for organisations that want to see 'hardworking' and 'committed staff', but don't want the potential consequences of mental illness and declining performance over time.

As ever, the focus of HR approaches would appear to be on preventing the negative, limiting the number of days people take off sick or looking at what targets they haven't hit, instead of encouraging the positive. In reality, to be truly effective, any wellbeing policy must go beyond just preventing absence and instead look towards enabling employees to be as effective and productive as possible. A key component of such a policy relates to allowing people to recharge and properly switch off from work, not just when they are sick but in the evenings and at the weekend.

As the marked increase in calls to our helplines from people who are at breaking point shows, employees and managers alike are putting unreasonable pressure on themselves, to the point where this is now becoming counter-productive. There has been a steep increase in the number of staff calling for help with mental health issues - up 70% from 2010 to 2012. 60% of all contact from employees concerned personal issues. While calls relating to actual divorce and separations remained stable, problems with relationships generally peaked in 2011 before dipping down this year. The figures are evidence of the cumulative effect of problems created by the recession. What may have started as a normal sense of insecurity, of added pressures, changes at work and financial worries, turns into more serious mental health issues over time.

Critical to stopping the trend is for everyone to step back and collectively prioritise what really needs to be achieved within each organisation. If restructuring activity has forced individuals to take on the workloads of several people, it's simply not viable to expect them to operate under that level of increased pressure for a prolonged period of time. Instead, business priorities need to be agreed and roles re-defined to give people the opportunity to focus on what matters most, so that they can make a valuable contribution within the confines of the working day, instead of constantly staying late, attending while sick or taking work home with them.

At the same time, individuals themselves need to be encouraged to work in the most productive way possible. Ideally that means blocks of 120-150 minutes on a dedicated task, without interruption, followed by a break of 20 minutes to recharge and refresh themselves. Where employees are unable to concentrate on the task at hand because of intrusive worries and concerns about work or issues outside of work, they should be directed towards appropriate support, be this the EAP or associated debt, emotional counselling and legal helplines.

Once common principles across the workplace, the idea of taking a break, let alone a lunch break has somehow become synonymous with slacking off or not putting in the effort. This has created unhealthy, unproductive working environments, where people deny themselves the opportunity to recharge themselves, but instead end up becoming sluggish and ineffective, only to have to work longer to get the same amount done.

Only by focusing less on face-time and attendance and more on output and results can we identify which policies are truly most effective at supporting the ability of individuals to perform - and, by doing so, the performance of the business as a whole.

Mike Shaw, MD, The Validium Group