Managing absence: tackling the top five problems

By: Guest contributor

Date: 16 September 2013

Managing absence: tackling the top five problems /sick woman with flu{{}}Most owners will tell you that their business is only as strong as its people, so it’s important that your employees are fit and able to work.

So what are some of the costs of a sick workforce to a small business? And what can they do to stay lean, fit and ready to make money?

Sick days are more than a slight inconvenience for managers. Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) suggests that they cost the UK economy nearly £29 bn a year in lost revenue. For a small business, even a slight loss in productivity can make a big impact on bottom line, of course.

Businesses have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment for their staff. But it's also in their economic interest to do more than the bare minimum. Healthy, happy workers make productive workers. And as the population ages, managing absence will be increasingly seen as ‘mission critical’ rather than a ‘nice to have’.

Managing absence: top five problems

As a small business that is just starting up, you’re likely to be both time and cash poor, but it’s important to be aware of some of the more common reasons for sick days…and what you can do to prevent them.

Problem 1:

According to the Employee Benefits Healthcare research 2013 study, minor ailments such as colds are the biggest cause of absence in the workplace.


Invest in antibacterial hand gel and place a few bottles around the office to stop germs from spreading. And could you look at being more flexible where and when your staff work? Cloud computing makes working from home far easier. Staff can access and share important files and keep on top of emails, as well as check in at regular intervals if they can manage it without infecting the whole office. You don’t have to splash out on an expensive cloud computing package, Google Docs is great for a cash-strapped business.

Problem 2:

The second most common reason for an absence is musculoskeletal ailments, which affect the joints, tendons and muscles in the body. Most work-related musculoskeletal issues are developed over a period of time because the right health and safety measures haven’t been put in place. The result? Long-term absence or a series of sick days.


Remind your people to bend properly when lifting heavy boxes or invest in a trolley if they/you move a lot of stock regularly. Check that everyone is sitting at their desk at the right angle – adjust the height of their chair, change the position of the mouse or buy a stand for laptops if need be. And if you invest in a good employee health insurance scheme, they’ll be able to access physiotherapy or massage therapy to help get them back to work.

Problem 3:

The third biggest cause of sick leave is mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and stress. The economic downturn has made many workers feel unsure about the security of their jobs and they may be putting in longer hours than usual to impress. But, eventually, prolonged periods of stress and anxiety can manifest itself in more serious mental health issues, which force people to take long-term leave or phone in sick.


This is a more difficult problem to address, because there are no quick fixes. It’s about looking at your business culture from the start. Could you take some of the pressure off by letting staff work flexibly so they spend less time commuting and have a better work-life balance? If everyone is working regular overtime, might it be time to hire new staff, even if it’s just part-time help?

Problem 4:

Perfectly healthy staff phoning in sick when they simply want a day off. Did you know that one in three ‘sick’ days are not caused by an actual illness?


The heatwave this summer saw many office workers phone in sick to enjoy the sun. If this is a problem, remind staff to book holidays in advance and try to be flexible about your summertime working hours – it could really boost morale.

Staff are also less likely to ‘pull a sickie’ if the team is a close one and they genuinely care about not making colleagues pick up the slack. Try to encourage regular staff events, so team members get to know each other as people as well as colleagues.

Have stringent HR processes and include a clause about absence in your contracts. If someone has to phone in sick, make sure they have to explain their absence to you or one of your managers. If it’s a recurring problem, have firm but fair disciplinary procedures in place and try to establish if there’s another factor at play, such as stress.

Problem 5:

Productivity slumps. According to figures released by the Office of National Statistics, productivity in the UK has been falling since the economic downturn began in 2008.


Is there a health and safety issue at work here? Studies have shown that people work more efficiently in optimum temperatures, so insulate your premises and turn the heating up in winter, while investing in fans or air conditioning in the summer.

Blog supplied by Jamie Monteath, online representative of Bupa.

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