Pulling a sickie or facing a deeper issue?

Absence is undoubtedly expensive – Dame Carol Black in her 2008 report Working for a healthier tomorrow estimated the annual economic costs to the UK of sickness absence and worklessness associated with working age ill-health to be over £100bn. For UK employers, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in its latest absence management survey, calculates the annual cost of sickness absence to be £554 per employee.

When it comes to health and wellbeing, employees will inevitably have their ups and downs and it’s no accident that a key HR accountability is taking the lead on establishing and overseeing their organisation’s absence management policy. Fortunately, when it comes to managing sickness absence, most spells of sick leave are for self-limiting conditions of short duration that are straightforward for line managers to deal with. The big challenge comes when ill or injured employees have a health issue that means they will be absent from work for a lengthy period of time. It is here that HR’s mettle may well be tested – particularly for illnesses such as mental ill health which can affect anyone and can be difficult to spot.

That’s why it’s worth checking whether absent employees really are alright, as we know from our research of non-exec employees that 40 per cent would not tell their boss the truth why they were calling in sick if they were ill with stress, anxiety or depression. What’s more, we found that one in four employees – including bosses – say that they have personally experienced mental ill health. HR therefore needs to be vigilant in supporting line managers both to be aware of and alert to signs that their people may be struggling to cope with the pressures in their lives.

One of the difficulties with mental ill health is that it can be very easy to overlook. Signs and symptoms can vary from person to person so it can be hard to identify someone who is having difficulty coping. It can also be difficult for HR professionals and other managers who haven’t personally experienced mental ill health to understand and relate to those who are in this situation.

Mental ill health can, of course, have a profound effect on an employee’s ability to do their job. It can affect motivation, performance and relationships at work. However, the impact can be lessened both by taking preventive measures to mitigate the risk and by putting into place support systems for employees who are struggling to cope. This is where HR can add real value, both by helping to create a positive workplace culture where there is good awareness and understanding of mental ill health and by ensuring that there is suitable support in place to help those affected by it.

To raise awareness, employers need to be open and honest about mental health and encourage and support individuals in the organisation to share their experiences. This can be done, for example, at team meetings or in one-to-ones. A great way to make a real impact is to encourage members of the senior management team (for example, the company’s MD) to speak candidly about their own experiences. Setting an example from the top gives a clear message that mental health is important and an integral part of everyone’s wellbeing.

It is important for HR to help ensure line managers are aware of mental health issues and know how to spot the signs in their employees. They should also be given suitable support (such as specialist training and/or creation of supportive networks) to give them the confidence to initiate appropriate conversations with affected employees – and to deal with their responses when they broach the issue. Otherwise, line managers faced with an employee in this situation may be nervous of raising it – fearful of saying the wrong thing in case they are accused of discrimination, harassment or bullying. Educating managers on how to help support their employees and letting them know what assistance is available (access to a confidential counselling helpline, for example) will enable them to support their staff more confidently and effectively.

Employers can’t remove all work pressures but, with the support of their HR professionals, they can work with affected employees to develop coping strategies to help to reduce stress – for example, through a change in working hours or a change of job role. As a part of their duty of care to protect employee health and safety, HR and managers need to be able to work together to identify and address potential work related triggers for stress or mental health problems. HR should also support line managers in monitoring and assessing how their team members are doing. This can include talking to employees to identify and understand stresses and pressures they may be facing.

There is no one size fits all approach to managing mental health at work but HR professionals need to ensure they’re including it as part of their wider sickness absence management policy. And, if employees do call in sick, encourage your line managers to take the time to ask them how they really are – it could make a difference.

By Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare


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