Stress is the key to absence management

Piers Bishop · November 4, 2015

The CIPD‘s annual survey on absence management paints a fairly grim picture.

Stress-related absence is up on last year in most sectors, especially in the public services, and only a few organisations said that stress-related absence had decreased. Not even 25% of organisations managed to make their absence target last year, and the median cost of each sickness is £554.

The report concludes that “creating a culture of health and well-being is the greatest challenge for organisations” but while few managers will argue with that out loud, it immediately poses them a problem: after minor illnesses, musculoskeletal problems and back pain, the main cause of absence is stress, and the main cause of stress is workload. So the only achievable way of reducing absence is to reduce people’s workload: a lose-lose situation for managers…

The most common methods used to reduce stress are “staff surveys, flexible working options and risk assessments/stress audits”. It is just possible that a stress audit followed by some stress awareness training might be useful, but isn’t this shutting the stable door just a little too late?

Without rapid, practical intervention to understand and deal with the stresses people are suffering, something entirely predictable will happen: some of them will go sick.  This then puts the rest of the staff in an interesting position. As their colleagues fall around them, the pressure on them (either from management or their own sense of duty) will increase, putting them under even more strain than before.

Sooner or later more of them will go sick, increasing the pressure again on the others, and so on.  Engineers would call this a progressive failure – in everyday terms it’s a death spiral, and a completely avoidable one.

If you want a sustainable solution to a problem, go upstream of it.

Instead of parachuting in new staff to prop the team up, or bribing people to stay at work with random ‘benefits’, wouldn’t it be better to have a way of heading off the whole problem before it comes to pass.  This implies a system that understands the stresses on staff, and not just the obvious pressures of work but the whole range of underlying social, emotional and cognitive factors that decide whether the staff feel calm and capable or stressed as hell.

Well, such a system already exists, and you can try it out free, today. Organisations of all kinds and sizes have already discovered that WeThrive will tell you things you didn’t know about your team – things that have a bearing on who will stay and who will go, who will be sick a lot and who will thrive. Take the free 10-person trial now or email us to discuss your needs.

There will always be some absence – there’s not a great deal you can do about muscular problems, colds and so on.  But the whole grey area of workplace stress is something you can have an influence on – if you understand what is making your staff unhappy.  Start now and next year your sickness record could look quite different…