Staff sickness cancels 500 trains

Piers Bishop · May 19, 2016

It has been a bad week for anyone who has to commute into London by Southern Railway. The trains are packed enough as it is, with many season ticket holders resigned to standing at peak times, but this week nearly 500 train services had to be cancelled because of staff sickness. If you’re worrying about how to reduce staff absence at the moment you think you have problems!

This epidemic was almost entirely confined to the train conductors, and may be connected with the fact that Southern is planning to introduce more driver-only services, cutting out the conductor role altogether. But it does highlight the chaos that can be caused by high levels of staff sickness.

The multiple causes of sickness have changed over the years –  historically coughs and colds were top of the league, followed by musculoskeletal disorders (bad back probably), and then the famous ‘stress’. Several factors have now combined to move stress into number one place, and I can guess that the stress of potentially losing their job might be part of the reason the Southern conductors are feeling so ill.

We don’t know how this will end but the dispute is shaping up badly, with the train company pointing out that they wouldn’t have the problem if they could just get rid of the conductors and run driver-only trains. It’s turning into the kind of argument that nice Mr Hunt has been coping with so well at the NHS.

However, there are some things we can say about why people go sick, and why they leave a perfectly good job in the hope that the one round the corner will be better (and then do the same again). First a key research finding: when suffering from a common cold, the number of days’ absence varies according to how much people dislike their job*.

At first sight that lies in the ‘tell me something I don’t know’ category, hardly worthy of three researchers, several months and a significant grant – but that simple finding has a bearing on virtually every sick day ever taken that is not caused by a life-threatening condition.

People don’t say ‘Aha, I have mild pharyngitis and a slightly raised temperature so there’s an 82% probability that I and my colleagues will be better served if I take a day off work’. There’s no conscious deductive process at all, they just ‘weigh it up’ somehow and take the day off. If you could influence that process you could almost certainly reduce staff absence…

That decision involves comparing several variables: how much do I not feel like going to work because I am ill; how much will I feel guilty (which varies on how serious you feel the illness to be and how much the company or your colleagues need you to be at work); and crucially, how much do you actually want to be there anyway.

We could draw a vector diagram of this to reach a conclusion but we don’t need to; the immensely sophisticated but wordless emotional computer that sits in the centre of the human brain does it effortlessly in moments – unless the factors are balanced, in which case you may have to ‘wrestle with your conscience’ for a while.

It would be difficult to put a number on how many working days are lost because that computation comes down on the side of ‘duvet day’. For certain the large number of Southern Railway conductors who are suddenly suffering from a mysterious malaise are having little difficulty with the calculation – they feel they have good cause to dislike the management that is trying to make their jobs unnecessary.

But we can be certain that every single one of the more marginal decisions that ends, on balance, in a day’s absence could be swayed the other way if the employee liked work a little more. And the more people like work the harder it is for illness to win the argument.

We also know that you can influence how much people like their work: our whole business is based on helping employers how to do just that, by finding out where the pain is in working life so they can do something about it.

To find out how WeThrive allows you to do this just give us a call, or try it free with ten of your people now. It would be a good project to at home if you can’t get to London by train today…


*Job satisfaction and short sickness absence due to the common cold, Corne A.M. Roelen, Petra C. Koopmans, Annette Notenbomer and Johan W. Groothoff. Department of Health Sciences, University Medical Center, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands