UK: Are Declining Sickness Absence Levels Unhealthy For Your Business?

Recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed that the average number of sick days taken by employees in the UK in 2017 was 4.1. This figure is almost half the average for 1993 (7.1), and has been declining every year since 1999. The sickness absence rate is lowest in the private sector and particularly low for professional occupations (1.7%).

But what are the reasons for this decline? It has been optimistically suggested that the decline in sickness absence could be explained by improvements in health and life expectancy. However, this suggestion has been dismissed by HR experts. Cary Cooper, President of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has commented that, if this were the case, there would be a corresponding rise in productivity at work. Yet we have seen no such improvement in productivity in the UK. Instead, Cary Cooper and many others are attributing this decrease in sickness absence to a phenomenon known as "presenteeism".

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism is the term used to describe employees who continue to show up for work, despite being potentially unfit to do so. According to the 2018 CIPD/Simplyhealth "Health and Wellbeing at Work" survey, 86% of those surveyed admitted to having witnessed presenteeism in their workplace within the last 12 months, compared to 72% in 2016 and a mere 26% in the 2010 survey. Presenteeism has become more commonplace across UK workplaces for various reasons. In particular, the global financial downturn and our impending withdrawal from the European Union have created a more uncertain and competitive job market, resulting in employees continuing to work even when they are not fully fit, out of concern that they will be looked on unfavourably if they take sick leave. In addition, the rise of the "gig" economy, flexible working and zero hours contracts means that many groups of employees simply do not have the luxury of paid sick leave.

Another interesting factor is the role that technology has played in the decrease in sickness absence. Remote access is viewed increasingly positively – it can allow employees to work from home and manage their working day with greater control. However, this ease of access can also encourage sick employees to continue to work whilst ill, as they may feel as though the flexibility to work from the comfort of their own home leaves them with no excuse for not logging on. Another finding in the CIPD/Simplyhealth survey supports this reasoning – nine in 10 respondents identified their employees' inability to switch off outside working hours as the most common negative effect of technology on wellbeing, linking technology to rising stress levels and increased risks to the psychological health of employees. Stress-related absence is one of the most common causes of long-term sickness absence, capturing the almost paradoxical connection between presenteeism and absence.

What should employers do about this?

What seems clear is that presenteeism is a catalyst for stalled or even reduced productivity. In which case, employers should look to address any such culture in their workplace. But in addition to looking at presenteeism from a productivity perspective, employers should also remember that they have a duty of care in respect of their employees – they must take reasonable steps to ensure their employees' health, safety and wellbeing. The potential connection between presenteeism and long-term sickness absence puts employers at risk in this regard. 

However, employers can take action to protect themselves and their employees from the dangers of presenteeism. Rachel Suff, Senior Employment Relations Adviser at the CIPD, advises employers to "look beyond sickness absence rates alone and develop a solid, evidence-based understanding of the underlying causes of work-related stress and unhealthy behaviour like presenteeism". Employers should therefore keep an eye out for unexpected decreases in productivity or behaviour that is out of character. Performance appraisals and private discussions should be used to explore the underlying causes of such behaviour. Employees that appear to be sick or stressed should be encouraged to see an occupational health provider, and employers should consider providing counselling services and subsidised gym memberships to promote general employee wellbeing in and out of the workplace.

Dentons is the world's first polycentric global law firm. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2015 Global Elite Brand Index, the Firm is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality and value in new and inventive ways. Driven to provide clients a competitive edge, and connected to the communities where its clients want to do business, Dentons knows that understanding local cultures is crucial to successfully completing a deal, resolving a dispute or solving a business challenge. Now the world's largest law firm, Dentons' global team builds agile, tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 125 locations serving 50-plus countries. www.dentons.com.

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