The real cost of absenteeism

Offshore work comes with its own set of pressure points that have the potential to affect mental health.
Offshore work comes with its own set of pressure points that have the potential to affect mental health.

Absenteeism can be a big problem. Average employee absence is 6.6 days per year and the annual cost to British businesses is around £554 per employee, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Despite the heavy price of staff absence, only one-third of companies monitor this cost, which is the first step to bringing it down.

But what exactly is absenteeism?

In short, absenteeism is an employee’s habitual or intentional absence from work.

Employers will, of course, expect their staff to miss a certain number of workdays each, but excessive absences can lead to reduced productivity.

This, in turn, has the potential to impact company finances, employee engagement and morale.

To tackle the problem of absenteeism it is important to first understand the causes.

The primary reason for short-term absence (up to four weeks) is minor illness.

The likes of colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines were reported as the most common cause of short-term absence in all employees by three-quarters of companies.

For manual workers this is followed by stress (3%) and musculoskeletal injuries (13%), while for non-manual workers those figures are almost completely reversed (13% and 2% respectively).

Meanwhile stress (29%) and acute medical conditions (23%) are the main causes of long-term absence (four weeks or more) for all employees, followed by mental ill health (13%), musculoskeletal injuries (8%) and back pain (5%).

But once again worker type affects these figures. For manual workers, musculoskeletal injuries (25%) are the most common cause of long-term absence; for non-manual workers it is acute medical conditions (25%).

This is why it is vital that employers first consider the specific circumstances of their employees when setting out an action plan to mitigate absenteeism, and for offshore oil workers, these conditions are somewhat unique.

On the one hand, a significant proportion of offshore workers are involved in manual labour and, as such, physical health issues will be a large driver of absenteeism.

At the same time, offshore work comes with its own set of pressure points that have the potential to affect mental health, such as prolonged periods away from home, lack of privacy, and demanding shift work in an often harsh environment.

By monitoring absenteeism in their own workplace, employers will get a better understanding of its underlying drivers.

Then they can look to tackle the cause instead of the symptom.

Whilst we appreciate sickness absence is unavoidable at times, it is imperative that we manage this effectively in order to return absent employees to work as soon as they are fit to do so.

It is easy to lose track of those on sick leave, and it is important that absent employees feel that employers are interested in their welfare.

One way to achieve this is through a sickness absence management programme in association with a dedicated medical advisor.

We have found that when our medical team works with human resources by having regular absence meetings, this leads to a reduction in the volume of absence.

Early intervention is key, as statistics show that the longer a person is absent on sick leave, the less likely they are to return.

About 20% of workers will not return to work after four weeks of absence.

This rises to 80% after an absence of six months.

A reduction in sickness absence can also be achieved through the likes of company-specific wellness programmes that educate and help employees maintain healthier lifestyles, return to work policies that support staff after a period of health-related absence by making necessary modifications to the workplace, and, where possible, flexible working.

The good news is that being in work is fundamentally good for health and wellbeing.

It provides purpose and an income, encourages independence and enables social contacts to develop.

Employers can minimise absenteeism by empowering their staff with the engagement, motivation and tools to be healthy, happy and productive workers.

Dr Louise Slaney is medical director at Iqarus