How Company Wellbeing Initiatives can reduce Sickness Absence

How Company Wellbeing Initiatives can reduce Sickness Absence

How Company Wellbeing Initiatives can reduce Sickness Absence

The first Monday in February isn’t too far off; statistically it is supposed to be the most popular day for employees calling in sick in the UK, with an estimated 350,000 individuals taking the day off in 2017.  This is attributed to many factors, including the weather, the preceding Friday being Januarys pay day and the rise in job dissatisfaction after Christmas.  According to the ONS, 141.4 million days were lost to sickness in 2018, up almost 10 million on the previous year and averaging 4.4 days per employee.  27.2% of the sickness absence was attributed to coughs and colds, with 12.4% being officially down to Stress, anxiety and depression, although this figure is considered to be higher, as workers are often cautious about revealing these reasons for their absence.

With the cost of sickness absence in the billions, more organizations are introducing wellbeing or wellness initiatives in the workplace.  A recent YouGov poll identified the clear correlation between staff wellbeing and engagement, productivity, quality and overall individual, team and business performance and ultimately profit.  Prevention of illness and the promotion of healthy choices are considered to reduce the number of sick days.

Some wellbeing initiatives simply include the provision of free fruit and break out or games areas. However, an employee’s wellbeing is complex and involves their physical, physiological and emotional wellbeing and self-esteem.  The American WELL Building Standard® addresses the old issue of sick building syndrome by considering the effect on employees of air, water, nourishment, light, comfort, as well as looking at levels of employee fitness and state and attitude of mind.  This is similar to the SMART Working initiatives embraced by companies such as Plantronics, who introduced different work areas for concentration, collaboration, contemplation and communication in their UK head office, as well as encouraging remote working and healthy living, and as a result saw sickness absence levels fall to below 3%.

In order to ensure your wellbeing strategy and policies are relevant and will be welcomed by the workforce, it is recommended that current workplace wellbeing is assessed utilizing staff surveys, pressure profiles and risk assessments in order to identify pressure points.  Many companies have been criticized by being seen to ‘tick the wellness box’ by introducing simple agreements, such as not responding to emails after 8pm or before 8am, not sending emails at the weekend, or not allowing workers to eat at their desks, but these ideas have often backfired as there is no buy-in from senior management or team members.

Wellbeing strategies need to originate from the leadership team, as well as HR, and be role-modelled by line managers and embedded in to the organization’s culture, from selection to onboarding, to performance management, to exit interviews:  It is pointless for a company to insist employees take their allocated 4 – 5 weeks annual leave each year, when the senior management team may only manage a week in August and one at Christmas and during both times continue to respond to emails around the clock.

Well-being strategies should also be tailored to individuals, for example a recent survey found that 19% of Millennials were interested in flexi-working and 14% in cash bonuses; they certainly weren’t interested in pension advice or vouchers for high street stores.  A holistic and preventative approach to wellbeing may include alternative therapies, such as on-site meditation, massage, mindfulness, yoga, reflexology and reiki, as well as encouragement to make healthy lifestyle choices including food, drink and exercise, which can result in lower sickness absence levels. 

However, it’s important for employers to be ‘mindful’ that many individuals will not be comfortable with some of these holistic practices and generational differences should also be considered, for example, the Baby Boomers in particular may still consider that the workplace is for work and that playtime should be for after working hours.  Often, the more simple initiatives, such as book clubs and foosball, become the most popular as a break from the desk, especially with some individuals binge working and spending 60 – 70 hours a week in the workplace, more break out areas and health initiatives are regarded as being positive.  It’s also well documented that many of the US tech giants have sleep pods and secluded areas in their offices for team members to rest.

Overall the guidelines for Wellbeing strategies and policies include the following criteria: 

  • A clear, communicated vision/mission so that employees can recognise how their work responsibilities, tasks and objectives contribute to the company’s purpose, such as the janitor at NASA saying ‘I help put men on the moon
  • A Competency Framework with clearly identified acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, which are understood and measured at regular review meetings
  • Leaders who 'walk the talk' and live the company’s values, competencies and behaviours: a leader or manager who slams down the phone, bangs the desk, rolls his/her eyes, or tuts can have a major negative impact on the morale and wellbeing of his/her team members
  • Emotions are infectious and aggressive behaviours are proven to result in a disengaged workforce, who will limit opportunities for communication, feel undervalued, and actively start looking to move jobs.  31% of employers have reported witnessing presenteeism. Whereas open and honest leaders and managers with high Emotional Intelligence and adaptable leadership styles, who act as role models, can maximise the potential of their teams
  • A clear understanding by all stakeholders of the demands being made of employees and their individual ability to prioritize and manage their workload
  • The level of autonomy and empowerment employees and managers have for making decisions
  • A swift and documented approach to Conflict Management and the handling of interpersonal disputes, with red flags to identify those who may be experiencing high stress levels
  • The level and means of support the line manager, team and organization offer, including access to confidential EAPs, (Employee Assistance Programmes), which provide counselling services, as well as financial and legal advice
  • Change Management and Resilience Programmes to proactively communicate and manage change and pressure
  • The encouragement of true collaboration and teamwork, where employees set their own objectives, are rewarded for achieving team targets and a Coaching and Mentoring culture is encouraged
  • Training and Development: Coaching and Training interventions are mostly regarded as positive and motivational, therefore they help to promote feelings of well-being.  This year over half the workforce is set to comprise of Millennials, who have a need to feel valued and respected.  22% of Millennials recently surveyed said that the amount or lack of Training and Development was the most important factor in them leaving or staying with a company
  • An opportunity to progress in the company with a structured approach toTalent Management and Succession Planning
  • Consistency in pay, conditions and benefits, where inequality can lead to resentment and ultimately resignation
  • A positive work culture, led from the top, which may be initiated by professionally delivered 360 Feedback Reviews for senior managers in order to encourage more openness and trust
  • The promotion of work/life integration and balance

With the war on talent escalating, sickness absence levels rising, the existence of 5 generations in the workplace, and over 33% of women now choosing self-employment, (between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for 80% of the new self-employed) workplace wellbeing should feature in the top priorities for HR and leaders in 2020.


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