The continuing cost of absenteeism

15-04-2004

Most of us have been there at least once: you wake up with a screaming hangover and really can't face going into work. In fact even getting out of bed seems impossible, the pain and misery is that bad.

You knew you shouldn't have drunk so much on a school night, but you got a bit carried away with the fun and the company. Throwing a sickie or possibly death are the only answers.

So hangover fear rising, you ask your flatmate to phone your boss to say you've got a "migraine".

Leaving you feeling grim and guilty for the rest of the day, but at least with lots of comfort food and telly.

Numerous factors

Taking a one-off sickie may not seem too much of a crime, but they all add up to a major headache for UK industry.

So much so that according to a report by healthcare consultancy IHC, 40 million days are lost each year in the UK to workplace absenteeism.

And while 93% of employees cite colds and flu as their reason for being away from work, IHC says that in reality at least half of all workplace absence has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with health.

Instead, it says, people decide to stay away from the office for a whole host of work, personal or domestic issues.

These range from bullying in the workplace, to responsibility for children or elderly relatives, to job demotivation, low pay, or the above-mentioned hangover.

High cost

Yet of course ill health can still be caused by someone's job, be it a bad back due to inappropriate seating, or mental issues such as stress or depression as a result of bullying, pressure, alcoholism or drug problems, or over-work.

IHC estimates that 13.4 million working days a year are lost to stress, anxiety and depression, and 12.3 million to back and upper limb problems.

And the overall cost to UK industry? A whopping �11.5bn in 2002 was paid out in wages to absent employees and on additional overtime and temporary staff cover, according to the CBI.

The message of IHC is simply prevention - try to remove the reasons why staff may be absent in the first place, not just react to the problem after it has happened.

"Dig beneath the surface of any company, and you will probably find a whole host of cultural, organisational and management issues lurking behind high absenteeism rates," said healthcare consultant Paul Roberts, the author of the IHC report Absenteeism - Industry's Hidden Disease.

"The good news is that it's actually quite simple to manage absenteeism - and the benefits are both immediate and long-term."

Removing causes

One such firm that has decided to tackle the problem of workplace absence is investment management company Invesco.

Based in the City of London and Henley-on-Thames and employing 1,000 permanent staff, it realised that absenteeism, whether to visit a doctor, physiotherapist or councillor, was costing it an estimated �38,000 a year after carrying out a study into the problem in late 2002.

Taking on the problem, Invesco overhauled its health provision, deciding to invest in a private GP for its staff and also to bring in a phsyiotherapist.

In addition it started workstation assessments by a qualified ergonomist, free health tests and counselling, and non-contributory private medical insurance for its staff.

It has found that one-day sickness absences have fallen by 6%, saving 60 working days per year.

"It has helped us raise staff morale and increase wellness at the same time as reducing down-time in the office and improve productivity," said Laura Ashford, the company's compensation and benefits manager.

Skiving

Yet according to the CBI, there will always only ever be so much a company can do to prevent absenteeism.

While it calls on companies to do all they can to try to limit the problem, its most recent study on the issue estimates that up to 15% of absences are not genuine.

"Employers obviously have an obligation to make working life as pleasant as possible for their staff," said a CBI spokesman.

"However, there will always be a certain level of absenteeism - around 15% - which there is not a lot employers can do about."

Or in layman terms some employees will always try and take the proverbial, or wake up with the occasional bad hangover.

By Will Smale
BBC News

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