My brain hurts

Claire Vane
October 3, 2023

Many people are writing about absenteeism in the workplace, and I don’t want this minute to pass without making comment. As a rule of thumb, absence levels within the workplace have always been thought to be around about 6 days per annum for white collar staff i.e. those who work in offices. Looking at the figures more closely, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which is the professional body relating to HR matters, notes in a recent survey that average absence levels for all staff has gone up to 7.8 days of absence over the last year from a previous average of 5.8. This is a dramatic percentage increase and is the highest since 2010. That year is always an interesting milestone date as it was then that the last Equality Act was passed and declared nine protected characteristics - age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

That may be thought to be irrelevant in looking at absenteeism, but we don’t think it is, as it shifted attitudes in the workplace to a certain extent and not least of all codified previous equality legislation including disability legislation. There are many myths in the workplace about whether one can tackle and take measures to reduce high absence levels.  Care must be taken as to whether absences are handled consistently and whether there are patterns of absence, or whether there is some underlying health issue. Whatever the causes, businesses have to operate, and sometimes difficult actions need to be taken to ensure that the workplace can thrive while protecting individuals who are vulnerable and fall into a category of disability, and we must not forget mental health.

Having just played a piano concert focusing specifically on teenage mental health, I have become acutely aware of the increase in stress levels that I hear mentioned, both in teenagers but also across all age groups in the workplace (Age is a protected characteristic too). As a team, we have a sense that absence levels are increasing and undoubtedly that stress levels have increased. The recent CIPD survey indicates that 76% of this increased average absence is due to stress-related issues.

The second area of concern is what is roughly termed ‘management style’; management style is not always appropriate. When a large part of the workplace is stressed, there is an increase in stress all round and managers themselves are affected. We hear about stress and poor management style again and again in exit interviews.

There are various mechanisms that employers might think of using to help reduce stress and find out what’s really going on. Honing skills on giving and receiving feedback can help greatly and organising ‘stay’ interviews rather than waiting for matters to reach a terrible crisis point resulting in more exit interviews, can be very effective.  It is a very important time for employers to realise that the need to invest in management and leadership training is vital to protect our most valuable asset - our workforces, by improving mental health.

We now have mental first aiders, but it is unusual for organisations to attack the whole issue of mental health with the investment that is required in view of our current economic crisis. Somehow, we must break that cycle with investment in leadership management training, creating awareness and sound understanding of managers for health issues that are not easily visible, more regular and less formal modern performance review systems which include mechanisms that focus on individual mood and motivation.

It is very alarming that although big organisations often have a wellbeing policy, many smaller ones do not, and it is time that we put energy, time and thought judiciously into the various mechanisms we can use to improve wellbeing. Managers themselves are often at sea and need practical advice on how to implement wellbeing strategy. It often requires different kinds of interventions in different situations, whether training and leadership development, the use of psychometrics, better review of performance or the use of Occupational Health while at the same time striking a balance with a humane approach.

If you would like to discuss practical actions that your organisation can take to bring about behavioural change and reduce absenteeism with concern, balance and moderation, then please do get in touch.

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