sickness absence

Sickness absence rates don’t tell the whole story

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The number of sick days taken per person has fallen to its lowest levels ever recorded, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Last year 137 million days were lost which works out at 4.3 days per person – down from 7.2 days in 1993 when the government started keeping records.

That means a sickness absence rate of 1.9% compared to the 3.1% in 1993.

Public sector sickness absence rates were 2.9%, down from 4.3%, contrasting with the private sector rate of 1.7%.

Public sector rates have always been higher than private sector which has been attributed to its generous sick pay schemes.  The private sector rate is more like the rate in the US where until recently few workers got sickness benefits.

Within the public sector the NHS had the highest rate of sickness absence at 3.5%.

When I was a director of a large NHS Trust in the 1990s I was tasked with helping management reduce sickness absence (I had to convince the chairman that it was a line management responsibility which HR could support in different ways).

Carrying out quarterly surveys and publishing league tables I found that levels varied by occupation. Nurses had the highest rates of sickness absence, above 6%, whilst senior managers had the lowest at just over 1%. Admin staff were around the mean of 3.0%.

Taking that data alongside well-being surveys we carried out showed that nurses were the ones who smoked the most (and took off more single days) but managers drank more.

We introduced  “first day reporting of sickness absence, in person to the line manager” where possible, “return to work interviews” when the person came back to work. Monthly reporting of sickness for everybody so we could calculate days lost, number of spells (occasions) and see suspicious patterns around weekends and bank holidays.

We also introduced No Smoking policies, Healthy Eating options, Stress Management programmes, a staff counselling service, provided a gym, a physiotherapist and yoga classes. We also had an occupational health service and offered air miles as a reward to people who didn’t take time off work through sickness.

Despite this mixture of approaches it wasn’t easy reducing the levels. The latest downturn has been particularly dramatic since the economic crash of 2007 and the ONS suggests that job insecurity is a significant factor. Zero hours contracts, currently at a their highest level, can’t be helping and there are more people working as self-employed. Who measures their sickness absence?

Other factors include the opportunity for some people to work from home when they are unwell rather than actually take a day off sick. In fact the TUC believes that far too many people go to work when they are ill and shouldn’t. And that argument has been strongly made for health care staff in contact with patients and you can see the point. Would you want someone sneezing all over you as you lay in your hospital bed?

The TUC say that over the Winter half a million people went into work despite feeling ill because they didn’t want to let down their clients, colleagues, or employer.

Twenty years ago, when I was involved in helping to manage the sickness absence problem, national data, produced at that time by professional bodies, showed that older workers took longer spells of absence whereas younger workers took off more short spells. The new ONS data shows that that is no longer true.

Older workers (over-65s) now take the most time off sick whereas workers aged 25-34 take off the fewest days with a 1.5% rate. The fact that people are still working after what used to be the normal retirement age also says something about the impact of the 2007 slump and people’s needs to top up poor pensions and keep themselves active.

Older workers are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses but not enough is done to adapt the work for them and lower productivity can be attributed to a lack of investment in training older employees.. BMW in Germany are a good example of what can be done to accommodate older workers and keep them productive,

As I said at the top of the post – there’s more to sickness absence than just the numbers.

Companies keen for staff to get fit

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stick_woman_toe_touch_500_wht_12023Companies are giving their staff bracelets to monitor activity levels with a view to reducing sickness absence.

These devices can measure the number of steps taken, distance travelled, calories burned, steps climbed and sleep levels.

Apparently more than 5 million Brits own such devices made by companies such as Fitbit, Nike, and Garmin.

An insurance company, Vitality, claims that monitoring your activity through the use of such bracelets or smartphones can help reduce sickness absence by 25%.

It’s becoming increasingly common in the USA and the UK for companies to offer staff such devices as employers recognise the benefits of a healthy workforce.

A spokesperson for Fitbit said “Fitbits help people to become more active, track their sleep and manage their weight. This makes people healthier and therefore more alert and active at work. Less sick days is a logical consequence of that“.

He said staff are allowed to choose whether or not their employer can see their individual data or have it aggregated. Some companies are said to offer incentives and encourage competition between departments.

Sickness absence is a major problem in the UK and any efforts to improve the health of employees is to be welcomed. Their is only so much employers can do however.

When I was HR Director of a large NHS Trust we introduced No Smoking policies, Healthy Eating options, Stress Management programmes, a staff counselling service, provided a gym, a physiotherapist and yoga classes. We also had an occupational health service and offered air miles to people who didn’t take time off work through sickness.

Results were mixed. The bottom line is employers can do little to influence staff behaviour and life-styles outside work.

Brits are miserable at work but enjoy their love lives

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figure_holding_happy_sad_signs_1600_wht_10227That’s according to data compiled by Eurostat.

UK workers were the 4th unhappiest in Europe just behind Germans, Bulgarians and Greeks.

This might explain our low productivity rates with long hours and high sickness absence rates.

Managers are seen as poor having been promoted because they were good at their previous job rather than for their potential.

On the other hand almost 60% of us said we were happy with our love lives and personal relationships with fewer than 10% very dissatisfied. That put us into 3rd place behind the Irish and the Austrians.

Overall our life satisfaction scores were about average with the Nordic countries, as usual, occupying the top spots.

 

Is working from home more productive?

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carrying_house_pc_1600_wht_4461Marissa Mayer made the news when she banned employees at Yahoo from working from home.

Was she right to do that? Recent call-centre research by Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University found that allowing staff to work from home over a 9-month period led to happier, more productive staff, with fewer leavers.

The company originally thought that productivity would drop but that would be offset by saving money on office space and furniture. In the event the home-based staff completed 13.5% more calls than the office-based staff.

The researchers thought that 1/3 of the productivity increase was due to a quieter environment with the remainder du to the home-workers working longer hours.

The home workers started earlier and had shorter breaks and because they weren’t commuting worked until the end of the day.

Sick days also plummeted (so more like self-employed workers in that respect).

It may be that because call-centre work is more robotic and easily measured that such big benefits were found. It might be different for creative or knowledge workers. And if there is low morale people might start slacking.

So was Mayer right to ban home-working? We don’t really know what the situation was at Yahoo but it generated negative publicity when she had a nursery built next to her office with an element of the Queen Bee syndrome.

Not everyone wants to work from home. It seems that younger people, whose social life often revolves around work, are less likely to want to work from home compared with older workers who are married with established families.

In the call-centre example the home-workers self-selected so might have been more motivated to start with. Some opted to go back into the office at the end of the 9 months and these turned out to be the poorer performers.

The biggest resistance appears to come from middle management who worry about losing control of people working remotely.

Perhaps the best solution is to let people work a couple of days a week from home, especially in bad weather or as in London when they held the Olympic Games. These could be mandatory days or on a rotation.

Main source: HBR January-February 2014

Stress – it never really went away

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CNV00032_2_2We thought it had. There were fewer offerings from stress management experts with a shift of emphasis to developing resilience and sickness absence rates dropped.

Alas the fear of losing your job makes people attend work more diligently (even when they shouldn’t) and the resulting “presenteeism” masks rising levels of mental health problems.

The Engineering Employers Federation (which I used to know well as at one time I was their stress management expert in the North West) surveyed 350 companies involving 90,000 workers. They found that only 1 in 10 companies provided training for managers on mental health issues. So they found a market for it – if companies were really interested.

Two fifths of the companies said long-term absence rates were increasing even though absence overall was low at 2.2% i.e. 5 days per employee a year on average. In fact half of the workers never took any time off sick.

Back problems (musculo-skeletal) are still the main cause of long-term absence overall but for a quarter of the companies stress and mental health disorders were the main cause.

These are still considered the most difficult to deal with in adjusting work to meet the employees’ needs.

The EEF’s Chief Medical Adviser says GPs should be given the tools  to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way they deal with other medical problems.

What about companies taking more interest in their employees’ wellbeing and making an effort to combat the causes of work-based stress?

We don’t want to go the way of America where stress is considered the norm and work-life balance is now work-life merge (thanks largely to high flying female executives).

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Coping with an ageing workforce

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elderly_man_holding_a_custom_text_sign_12871Many companies with an ageing workforce worry about declining productivity.

BMW decided to do something about it. They set up a programme which has been so successful it is now being rolled out in Germany, Austria, and the USA.

BMW realised that the average age of workers would rise from 39 to 47 by 2017 (that doesn’t seem that old to me but then I like the definition of middle age being someone older than me). Because older workers tend to have longer periods of sickness and need to work harder to maintain their output, BMW worried that this would undermine their strategy of enhancing competitiveness through technological leadership and productivity improvements.

Of course this is a trend all across the developed world. Comparing over-65s now with 2020 shows that in the USA that group will grow from 12.5% to 16.6%, in Japan from 17.1% to 26.2%, and in Germany from 16.4% to 21.6%. In the UK the figures are 18% rising to just under 20%. Another concern is that healthcare is three times as expensive for over 65s than for 30 – 50 year-olds.

In the past older workers were either dismissed or forced into early retirement but this was not an option for a company like BMW which prides itself on being a dependable employer – vital in a world where employee engagement is at an all-time low. This is also bad for the country. Past waves of early retirements has increased the numbers of retired workers leaving fewer people in the workforce supporting retirement costs.

Moving older employees to less physically demanding jobs is also not an option if there are no younger workers coming in to replace them, and in many countries this would also be seen as discriminatory.

So BMW chose a production line as a pilot and staffed it with a year 2017 mix of workers ie with an average age of 47. Then the foremen, supported by senior managers and technical experts, developed changes to improve productivity including managing health care, enhancing workers skills and the working environment, introducing part-time policies and change-management processes.

Initially there was resistance to the “pensioners’ line“: from the younger members of that team (42 people) who thought they would suffer a drop in productivity because of the older workers, and from older workers elsewhere in the factory who thought they might become less productive if they were moved from their comfort zone to the new line.

Even the foremen were worried that BMW might reduce work-speed rates and dumb down the IT systems to accommodate perceived deficiencies of older workers (See “Old doesn’t mean Stupid”). So they referred the project to the Workers Council who in turn referred them back to an earlier study that identified a basic framework for change on 5 dimensions.

These were: health management, skills, the workplace environment, retirement policies, and change processes. (I’m not sure why they didn’t know this before they started the pilot programme).

They used a standardised questionnaire, the Work Ability Index (WAI), to assess the fit between a worker’s ability and the demands of the job. They found that whilst productivity decreased on average there were wide variations with some workers suffering a steep decline whilst others remained fully productive. The foreman explained that the pilot line was not a soft option and also appealed to the workers’ pride, telling them that their experience was needed to secure the future of the plant and save jobs.

In the end 20 of the 42 workers stayed on the line and they recruited 22 more with a promise they could return to their old jobs after a year. So in 2007 the line was finally staffed with an age mix reflecting the projected 2017 demographics. They piggy-backed it onto a health initiative and introduced a self-diagnostic tool that awarded positive points for good habits like regular exercise and negative points for bad habits like smoking or being overweight. They also asked the workers about their aches and pains and what they could do to improve things.

To facilitate this they also simplified communications. Rather than using the old “continuous improvement” paperwork, people wrote ideas on postcards and stuck them on a notice board. These ideas were then allocated points by the team so they could be prioritised and the managers and foreman didn’t intervene in this process – it was bottom up and this increased buy-in from the workers.

After the introduction of a wooden floor – which dramatically decreased aches and pains – sceptics were won over and the workers took charge assisted by an ergonomists, a safety officer, and process engineers. Most of the work however was done by the workers themselves, often in their own time. In addition to the wooden floor they introduced special footwear, seating, flexible magnifying lenses, and adjustable height tables which reduced back strain.

They also changed work practices. Work was categorised and, depending on how physically demanding it was, was time-limited for each worker and job rotation was also introduced to balance the load on the workers’ bodies. And a physiotherapist developed stretching and strengthening exercises for them to do each day.

The end results? £40,000 of investment including workshops and expert input produced a 7% productivity improvement in one year, the same as achieved by other lines with younger workers.The target output was increased from 440 gearboxes per shift in 2007 to 500 per shift in 2008 and to 530 in early 2009. 4 workers were re-assigned but no-one wanted to leave.

They achieved a 10 defects per million quality target within 3 months and currently the target is zero defects.

Sickness related absenteeism in 2008 was the highest in the plant at 7% but typical of that age range but has since dropped to 2% which is below the plant average.

BMW now promote this 2017 line as their model for productivity and quality. Perhaps management took a risk letting the production managers experiment and allowing line workers to create the solutions. But it paid off for them and may be the answer in a world where the demographic time bomb is really ticking.

Source: HBR March 2010