When it comes to sick leave, employers need to take action

A new study has found that the average UK employee took over a week off sick last year. Companies that prioritise the people behind these numbers are more likely to reap the benefits 

Sick leave

You may not have noticed, but the people around you at work are getting sicker.

UK staff were absent from work due to illness for an average of 7.8 days over the past year, according to a new study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). This marks the highest level of such absences in a decade, and an average of two days more than the pre-pandemic rate of 5.8 days. 

But while publications such as the Daily Mail and The Spectator might want to decry the advent of “sick note Britain”, and question whether younger generations can match the work ethic of yesteryear, businesses need to take a sober look at what lies behind the figures. 

The CIPD findings show that the most common reasons for short-term absences were minor illnesses – colds or headaches – followed by musculoskeletal injuries and poor mental health. More than a third of the organisations surveyed said that Covid or long Covid were still a significant cause of sick leave. And when it comes to long-term sick leave, it is mental health issues, musculoskeletal injuries and chronic conditions such as cancer that are causing absences.

The UK’s ostensibly declining health is not necessarily a direct result of employers; macroeconomic issues such as the cost-of-living crisis have amplified stress and anxiety, as colder winters have increased the risk of viral infections. ⁠

But when workers are off sick it is bad for business. It creates a vicious circle. One person off ill results in lost productivity and if they are off for a long time, their workload could be passed on to their colleagues, who in turn are at the risk of burnout. That could then lead to them taking time off sick, too.

A proactive approach to reducing sick leave

On reviewing the CIPD’s findings, then, the sensible response by employers should be to proactively work to improve staff health and wellbeing in general. Rather than evidence of the need for a stiff upper lip, as some cynical columnists might suggest, the report’s results are a sign that, right now, the UK economy needs an arm around the shoulder.

While employers cannot wave a magic wand and remove every single health risk from a person’s life, they can at least attempt to create the healthiest working culture and environment possible.

Business leaders and managers should ask themselves: are we giving our staff ample paid holiday? When people work overtime, do we offer extra pay or, at least, time back in lieu? Are our perks and benefits helpful for physical and mental health? 

And, particularly in hybrid or fully remote working situations, are we regularly checking in with staff to guard against loneliness or isolation? Are we confident that staff working from home have a comfortable office set-up, with seating that provides adequate back support?

A happy and healthy workforce is a productive one. The quickest route for a company to reduce staff sick days starts by it taking an active interest in their health and wellbeing. 

And, finally, when time off sick cannot be avoided – sometimes, people are just ill or injured despite their best efforts not to be – it is important that employers invoke empathy and flexibility. If they need time off, don’t rush them back. Let them fully recover, or it could lead to more sick days in the future.