The first Monday of February is known as National Sickie Day – the day employees lie about their wellbeing to get out of work. ELAS, which promoted the notion, maintains that a combination of miserable weather, commuting in the dark, post-Christmas credit card bills and a long gap between holidays makes it a particularly bleak day. Interesting though the concept of when employees lie may be, the challenge of absence management to employers is too important to be relegated to a one day wonder. It’s key to have in place clearly stated attendance policies backed by a positive, open and honest approach to people management – all year round. Absence is undoubtedly expensive. Dame Carol Black in a 2008 report estimated the annual economic costs to the UK of sickness absence and worklessness associated with working age ill-health to be over £100bn. What’s more, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s latest absence management survey calculates the annual cost of sickness absence to be £554 per employee. When it comes to health and wellbeing, employees will inevitably have their ups and downs. It’s no accident that a key HR accountability is taking the lead on establishing and overseeing their organisation’s absence management policy. Fortunately, when it comes to managing sickness absence, most spells of sick leave are for self-limiting conditions of short duration that are straightforward for line managers to deal with. The big challenge comes when employees have a health issue that means they will be absent from work for a lengthy period of time. It is here that HR’s mettle may well be tested – particularly in the way of mental ill health, which can affect anyone and can be difficult to spot. That’s why it’s worth checking whether absent employees really are alright, as we know from our research that 40 per cent of non-executive employees lie about why they call in sick when ill with stress, anxiety or depression. What’s more, we found that one in four employees – including bosses – say they have personally experienced mental ill health. HR and line managers need to be aware of and alert to signs that staff may be struggling to cope with the pressures in their lives. But signs and symptoms vary from person to person, making it hard to identify someone who is having difficulty coping. It can also be difficult for those who haven’t personally experienced it to understand and relate to those who are in this situation. Mental ill health can, of course, have a profound effect on an employee’s ability to do their job. It can affect motivation, performance and relationships at work. However, the impact can be lessened both by taking preventive measures to mitigate the risk and by putting into place support systems. To raise awareness, employers need to be open and honest, and encourage individuals to share their experiences. This can be done, for example, at team meetings or in one-to-ones. A great way to make an impact is to have the senior management team speak candidly about their own experiences. Setting an example from the top gives a clear message that mental health is an integral part of everyone’s wellbeing. It is important to ensure line managers are aware of mental health issues and know how to spot the signs in employees. They should also be given suitable support (such as specialist training and/or creation of supportive networks) to give them the confidence to initiate appropriate conversations with affected employees – and to deal with their responses when they broach the issue. Otherwise, line managers faced with an employee in this situation may be nervous of raising it – fearful of saying the wrong thing in case they are accused of discrimination, harassment or bullying. Educating managers will allow them to support their staff more confidently and effectively. Employers can’t remove all work pressures but they can work with affected employees to develop coping strategies to reduce stress – for example, through a change in working hours or a change of job role. As a part of their duty of care to protect employee health and safety, HR and managers need to work together to identify and address potential work related triggers for stress or mental health problems. There is no one size fits all approach but HR professionals need to ensure they’re including it as part of their wider sickness absence management policy. And, if you predict that employees lie to you about their wellbeing, encourage your line managers to take the time to ask them how they really are – it could make a difference. Dr Mark Winwood is director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare
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