Most people get that everyone is going to have the occasional sick day here and there: after all, we’re only human. And most people don’t even pay attention to the reasons people give when they do go off sick on such an odd day. Which is lucky, as most individuals prefer to communicate this state in a very general text or email stating just plain generic ‘illness’....
But Ministers at a recent Health, Work and Wellbeing summit hammered home the core statistics of how this impacts UK businesses like yours: 35 million working days are lost through sickness at a cost of £12bn. Not only that, but The Work Foundation asserts that “there is no doubt that the health of the UK workforce is getting worse”.
So given these stats - quite depressing in their own right - how do you minimise the impact of sickness in your business. And how do you manage it when the occasional sick day starts to become noticeable and before you can say “ What? Again?”, you’ve got someone who’s clocked up so many sick days that you’ve lost confidence in their ability to actually be there to do their job. I mean, you likely want to be a good boss, but you also just simply want your team to be there to get stuff done.
Of course, there is a direct link between happy, healthy employees and the quality and quantity of their output at work and evidence suggests that promoting a happy healthy workforce - including paying attention to the physical environment, creating a supportive sense of community and giving autonomy to people - not only improves people’s performance but also reduces the amount of time people will be off sick. But these are things which be a longer term fix. When you’re the one in receipt of the text or email from someone explaining they won’t be making it to your client meeting or project finale, no amount of chat about Wellbeing Strategy is going to stop your initial reaction being some akin to “Arrggghhh…”
So if you find yourself in this situation:
- Take a deep breath: just breathing deeply puts you in a calmer and more receptive mood...
- Acknowledge that you have received the message, assume it is genuine ( or suspend any form of disbelief you may harbour that it isn’t) and wish them a speedy recovery
- Dust off your own sick policy and take a read to refresh your own memory. Chances are, it will say that anyone off sick need to let you know that they are sick, what the illness consists of and when they are likely to be back. If a reason hasn’t been given, make a note to follow up.
- Gather up the information given from any previous communications the individual has provided to get an accurate record of how many days they have been off, what the dates were, as well as any reasons given. It might be that when you take a look at the data you realise that really, your own imagination is exaggerating the time off they have had. But it will also help you spot any obvious trends you can discuss with them when they return if there are any in evidence.
- Once they do return (and for the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume they do..if they don’t, then that’s a whole other ball game I’m afraid) ask to speak to them in private
- During this meeting - a.k.a the Return To Work interview in HR circles - ask how they are feeling and outline your concerns over the amount and/ or frequency of their absence using the data you’ve gathered in point 4. above. Doing it this way not only helps objectify your point of view, but also serves as a reminder to the individual of their own sickness pattern if they’ve forgotten (and many do).
- Ask if there is anything the individual feels could be an underlying cause to all of these periods of absence. At this point, it becomes harder to template your response - an individual might unleash a florid explanation of other things happening in their life or conversely just be very factual - but don’t forget to listen as well ask what they think they can do to help improve their attendance moving forward.
- And the end of the meeting, re-cap on anything you have agreed, including any steps they are going to take and any additional support you can provide. And then agree a period you are going to review this over.
- Follow it all up in writing. Doing this doesn’t make you an a***, it makes you sensible. And it doesn’t need to be in a physical letter either. Email is fine and far more natural.
- And finally. Try and avoid paying statutory sick pay for every instance of sick leave. There may be no statutory obligation to pay above this - however recognising that sometimes people need help when they are sick goes a long way to creating more of a sense of support in your team.
Most sickness is genuine and so treat it as such - but in the unlikely event that you suspect someone really is trying pull a fast one on you, addressing it head on and highlighting that you are monitoring any time off goes a long way to knocking it on the head.
Out of all of these points listed above, it’s Point 6 - actually having a conversation about your concerns over the sickness - which is the one which people most often stumble over and avoid. Often hoping that things will improve if they ignore for long enough or simply because they feel too awkward to address it directly. But there are no laws you are breaking in doing so - although I would counsel not being too brash in the words you choose - and taking another route, such as burying yourself in policy wording rather than using genuine language, telling someone that they've breached their sickness 'allowance' or taking any action that penalises someone without talking to them first (I'm talking sick pay, verbal warnings etc). Now, that's being a jerk..
Photo Credit: the scream by Mark Tighe