Sickness absence: Healthy offensive

If you read nothing else, read this . . .

• Direct contact with the boss can create a positive working environment.

• Work, providing it is good work, can be good for employees’ health.

• Employers need to reinforce benefit messaging, especially around employee assistance programmes, to ensure staff are aware these are available.

• Health awareness programmes can help to remove stigmas around illness as well as making employees more health conscious and changing their behaviour.

Employers can seize the initiative by creating a positive working environment and making employee wellbeing a visible priority

There are various ways to deal with sickness absence in the workplace, but being more proactive in managing employee health can help to stop it occurring in the first place.

Creating an environment where employee health is regarded as important is the first step in tackling this problem.

Dr Chris Sharp, occupational health physician and managing director of WorkFit, says it is vital to create a workplace where people are valued. “Sickness absence is an enormous cost to an employer, so it is sensible to put effort into creating the right environment in the workplace,” he says.

Exactly what this environment is can be difficult to define, but Amy Whitelock, senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, says employers can learn a lot from the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. “There is a lot of evidence that SMEs are happy, good places to work,” she says. “There is a lot of direct contact, with the boss asking people how they are. They get the prevention side right. In a large organisation, the chief executive cannot really do this.

“In some large organisations, the move towards line managers looking after their teams is about creating the small business culture in terms of direct contact. It can also make managing absence more effective.”

As well as fostering a good environment, such direct contact has other benefits. Line managers can be trained to spot changes in staff that might be early indicators of mental health problems. They can then take preventative action, for example by referring them to an employee assistance programme (EAP) or occupational health or, if appropriate, make adjustments to help them cope better. Sharp says: “With conditions such as mental health, it should be about managing attendance rather than managing absence.”

Work is good for you

Experts also believe work can be good for you. Ksenia Zheltoukhova, researcher at The Work Foundation, says work brings a number of benefits that can help to keep employees in the workplace. “Providing it is good work, people want to be at work,” she says. “They want to keep in touch with their colleagues and the workplace. When someone stays out of work, it can demotivate them and lead to depression. Work is good for your health.”

Employers can also promote health by highlighting the support mechanisms that are in place if an employee is unwell. This can remove the stigma of being ill. Whitelock explains: “One employer told us that, at the interview stage, it tells candidates it supports the use of reasonable adjustments to keep an employee in the workplace. This shows employee health is part of the organisation.”

Another example of this is evident in Whitelock’s own organisation, Mind. It invites all employees to put together a wellness recovery action plan, whether they have a health problem or not. “Not everyone does it, but many see it as a way to open up a conversation about their health rather than a manager telling them what to do,” she says.

An EAP is another support mechanism that benefits from promotion before staff suffer a health problem. For example, at Informa, Thomas Humphris, head office HR and UK reward director, promotes the debt management service available through its EAP alongside its independent financial adviser (IFA). “Together, these can alleviate a problem before it becomes unmanageable,” he says. “When a problem reaches the point where it causes absence, the employee can be too blinkered to notice there is any support.”

Whitelock thinks many employers are not making enough use of EAPs. She has seen employers change this around by reminding line managers to mention it in team meetings so that it becomes destigmatised.

Adam Brooke, employee benefits manager at JP Morgan, has taken a slightly different approach to promoting the company’s EAP. “We have run a series of webinars that cover a broad range of topics, such as stress and how to communicate with teenagers,” he says. “These raise awareness of the issues, but we always ensure webinar speakers conclude by explaining the next steps, including the EAP. This has really driven calls to the EAP.”

As well as providing benefits to deal with problems before they escalate, employers can also raise the profile of health through initiatives such as awareness days and health checks. These can be effective, says Sharp. “Through health promotions, [employers] can get people to change the way they address diet and exercise. This can be very positive.”

As well as awareness days and health checks offered by benefit providers, there could be a role for health charities, which can provide information and advice on various conditions. For example, some of the organisations that have selected Mind as their charity partner hold seminars on the issues around mental health.

Health screening has a role

Health screening also has a role in the workplace, helping to identify problems early, as well as giving staff personalised advice on improving their health. But there is some debate about their effectiveness.

JP Morgan’s Brooke supports screening. The firm offers all staff a free health screening, every two years for those aged under 40 and once a year for over-40s. “We get good take-up and the feedback is very positive,” he says. “Some younger employees get so much out of it they tell us they will pay for another screening the following year. We may move towards making it compulsory.”

But Sharp says health screening can focus too much on the negative aspects of health. “One of the disadvantages of routine health screening is you can get false positive results, which can cause psychological damage because people worry until all the tests come back,” he says. “But if you can use screenings to educate people and change their attitudes to healthy living, they can be very positive.”

Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna, says there is a place for health screening, but she favours a more stepped approach to health checks, starting with a simple lifestyle questionnaire and then more complex checks where appropriate. “This can work well,” she says. “It enables the employee to think about what they want to get out of it.”

Read more from the sickness absence roundtable