Sick leave and productivity giving businesses cause for concern

Sick leave and productivity giving businesses cause for concern
4 minutes read

As widely reported on 26th September 2023, the number of UK workers taking sick leave rose to the highest in 10 years. Yes, employees now take 7.8 sick days on average versus 5.8 in 2019. Many reasons were touted for the rise ranging from the cost of living to lingering COVID-19 concerns. Others were concerned about short-term actions taken by leadership that failed to address employee needs. Those on zero-hours contracts or on statutory sick pay (SSP) only have limited scope for absences. It was also noted that large employers and the public sector record higher levels of sick leave. With some of our customers worried about employee sentiment, lets look further at sick leave and productivity giving businesses cause for concern.


In sickness and in health?

There are times when it is undoubtedly necessary to take sick leave. Diseases, viruses, accidents at work and mental health issues are just a few of the potential reasons. For employers, they generally want their employees to stay with them, especially those who perform, display loyalty and possess knowledge. Aside from SSP, many employers offer further payments for sick leave, perhaps paying 100% of salary for up to 3 months and tapering off after that. Many SMEs offer SSP and maybe 1 week of sick pay. In practical terms, an employee who is genuinely ill or unable to work should be able to pay the bills if they are so unfortunate. This seems fair to avoid suffering when the employee has displayed worthy attributes. This is a great benefit to retention but it is also open to abuse.

Unfortunately for employers, we are hardly living in a ‘stable’ environment for employment. Following on from Brexit and then COVID, working culture has shifted and attitudes have changed. In general, people seem to value their personal time more than before (i.e. life is short, best not spend all of it working). They also display reduced loyalty to their employers, especially if not treated well during the pandemic. Furthermore, many staff who were not recipients of ‘furlough’ monies may begrudge what they experienced in picking up the slack. Add to that the isolating impact of WFH policies, exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis, where many are forced to stay at home to cut costs. In summary, it may be tempting to take sick leave to alleviate anxieties, isolation and monotony.


Productivity leaves the building

Anyone who paid attention to Vince Cable’s interview during the Liberal Democrats conference will have noted his comments on economic growth. He was asked if tax cuts, similar to those hastily imposed by the short-lived experiment that became known as ‘Trussonomics’, would restore economic growth? Mr Cable was quick to put such arguments to bed, pointing out that it had recently failed and that economic growth required a multitude of things. The first was to increase productivity, which we have talked about many times, which simply means the amount of output, or value added, per hour worked. Increasing productivity is far from easy and the UK has stagnated for more than 20 years on this measure. Sure, some gains can be made through new technology, automation, robotisation and AI, but underlying effort seems to be going in reverse.

There remains the spectre of ‘quiet quitting’. This is not an entirely new phenomenon and has perhaps seen many guises over the decades. Quiet quitters rose to public consciousness after the pandemic as people sought to ‘rebalance’ work and life. Social media trends, most notably on TikTok, extolled the virtues of doing the bare minimum and keeping your job. Unfortunately, this trend has hardly abated with no shortage of social media memes about the workplace. Bad bosses looking to take the credit, working hard but not progressing, working extra hours while bosses are laughing etc.

Finally, we should not overlook the role of managers. If your managers are quiet quitters, you have a real problem. Not only is productivity falling, but innovation and transformation are being avoided. With employment levels still high at 75.5%, few managers are worried about their jobs or keeping their heads down – despite mounting bills at home.


Curing the root causes of sick leave and low productivity

There are a few simple things that businesses can do to cure the root causes of sick leave and low productivity. These include:

  1. Deliver a great employee experience
  2. Focus people on purpose more than performance
  3. Increase leadership capabilities at management level

Underpinning these requires a long-term strategy to create a great place to work. A single amped up event, a pizza afternoon or a new office ping pong table are unlikely on their own to make a difference. Remember that over half of employees leave because of their manager. People want a great experience at work, which means great job roles that fit their motivations and capable managers who support and develop people. Furthermore, to avoid the ‘sticking plaster’ approach of many leaders, it would be wise to at least start to measure EX as a baseline.


Concluding on sick leave and productivity

A common response to high absence rates, declining productivity or departing staff is a quick survey. Unfortunately, a misleading employee engagement survey is not going to fix the root causes. They can be manipulated and biased in their design and in their answers. That’s why we offer to use neuroscientific techniques, where relevant, to measure non-conscious responses. Depending on the goals, we may not even ask the employee any questions in the research study. Whatever leaders decide to do, it has to be a long-term and sustainable change built on a foundation of accurate insights. Funnily enough, not all of the changes may cost you money to implement once you know where to look. So, before you spray cash and wonder why people are still demotivated, consider a different perspective.


Contacting Think Beyond

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