By Colin Hawes, Head of Claims, Generali UK Employee Benefits
Reports indicate that employers are more in the dark than ever right now when it comes to employee sickness absence.
What’s more, there could be greater challenges looming in terms of absence and claims – particularly with regards to work-related stress and burnout. In short, at a time when remote working is becoming a permanent feature for many, and business recovery depends on balancing cost savings with employee engagement and productivity, there’s an urgent need to get on top of all of this. This will require strong partnership working between employers, their providers and brokers.
It is predicted that a higher incidence of mental health (MH) and musculoskeletal (MSK) claims are on the horizon, but the lack of data right now on short-term remote absences is making the size and scale of underlying problems difficult to measure and predict. Consequently, the means to prevent small issues becoming big issues – in the shape of health and wellbeing interventions – aren’t always being put in place.
Age-old problem magnified
Just 16% of employers believe their sickness absence costs data is accurate, according to recent research by XpertHR. And more than four in 10 (42%) said they didn’t know if their absence costs data was accurate or not. These costs stood at a median of £568, and an average of £544 per employee, for 2019 according to the survey, which also cautioned that “this is unlikely to be an accurate measurement of the overall cost of sickness absence”.
XpertHR suggested that one reason for this is: “the narrow view taken on what to include when assessing the cost of sickness absence. While all our respondents include the salaries of individuals on sick leave, few count the cost of overtime, reduced performance, service or missed business opportunities”.
Of course, this survey is primarily based on 2019 data, although some companies submitted data that extended into lockdown. In other words, the problem of monitoring and managing short term absence is nothing new. But, right now, it’s compounded. Consider this:
Almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in June 2020; this had almost doubled from around 1 in 10 (9.7%) before the pandemic (July 2019 to March 2020), according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
A recent employee survey by Totaljobs found that 7 in 10 said the loneliness they experienced during lockdown was having a negative effect on their wellbeing (sleep, stress, self-esteem, eating habits). A quarter said it was impacting their productivity.
Meanwhile, three quarters (75%) of HR leaders think the risk of employee burnout is increased potentially as a result of a new culture of ‘e-presenteeism’ brought about by mass homeworking during the pandemic. This represented one of the findings of a study commissioned by LinkedIn in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, published in May.
Burnout & case law
On the subject of burnout, this is now classed as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation. It results from workplace stress that hasn’t been managed effectively. While it’s not a medical condition per se, “it could lead to a psychiatric illness if left unattended,” says Vanessa Latham, Employment Partner at law firm BLM. “The courts could say an employer should have been alert to the signs of burnout and taken preventative, supportive – and ideally individually tailored – action where required.”
So, what practical and preventative steps should employers take right now?
First and foremost, put in place a practical process of accurately recording all short-term absences, working in partnership with line managers and income protection providers.
Partner with your existing providers and brokers to help you add in an early warning system – a way of identifying potential problem areas, particularly where work-related stress is concerned.
Underpin this work with a long-term employee engagement programme, helping to nurture a culture of self-care. Again, providers and brokers can help with this. You probably already have access to a wide range of wellbeing support services via group risk and health products. This is about putting in place the means to help maximise their usage through a combination of early warning and a robust communication programme.
For best practice in line with proactively managing employee absence in the new normal from Marc Meryon, Partner and Head of Industrial Relations at Eversheds Sutherland, along with a step by step guide from Generali UK, please read this article that featured in HR Grapevine in June.
Generali UK in partnership with Employment Partner at BLM Law Vanessa Latham is hosting a complimentary webinar on 29th September at 11am, focused on tackling work-related stress. We will examine why HR needs to strike a careful balance between prevention and paternalism, including implications for Risk colleagues. To register, click here.