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4 Ways To Improve Your Company’s Sickness Absence In 2020 (And 2 That Won’t)

07 January 2020

Firstly, why would you want to?

Sickness absence costs real money – you need to bring in other staff to do the work of the person who’s off sick, and you lose continuity and the experience that the person has built up. You also have to pay people when they are sick, even if your policy is to pay as little as possible (more on this later).

So. How to improve your company’s sickness absence…

Send them home

Your sickness absence policy may be the root cause of the problem. If it’s very strict, then people will do their best to come to work even when they are basically useless – unable to do any meaningful work, and getting in the way of others.

The most common reason for sickness absence is minor illness (over 1/3 of the time at 35%). Many minor illnesses – flu, cold, etc – are infectious. Not only is the infected person in the way if they come into the office, but they are generously spreading their germs to everyone else.

If someone is sick at work, send them home. That means you need a sickness absence policy that’s a little more generous than the statutory minimum, otherwise people will come into work because they need the pay.

Be generous

The statutory minimum sick pay looks complicated on paper but works out as roughly 4 days at full pay, followed by up to 28 weeks at £94.25 per week. Very few people can afford to live on £94.25 per week, so if you are going to pay the statutory minimum, then your employees are going to do their best to be present.

This isn’t healthy though. Try to work out other ways to manage sickness absence, not through punishment.

Understand the problem

It isn’t possible to reduce sickness absence to zero – a parent or relative of school age children is going to pick illnesses up, and an adventurous person is going to have accidents, period. They will end up with time off sick. 

If you know what the average level of sickness is to be expected, then you know if you aren’t doing enough, or if it’s going to be expensive to do better. If you are 20% better than the average, there may not be much room for improvement. You may also need to review how you measure sickness absence to help with this – if managers let their favourite people stay at home without recording an absence, how do you know what the real level of sickness absence is?

Average levels of sickness absence in the UK have declined from 3.1% in 1993 (7.13 days per full time person, per year) to 1.9% in 2017 (4.37 days), although the downward trend began in earnest after 2003. See Table 1 below.

A table showing absence rate by industry in the UK, for year 2017

It’s higher for a workforce of older people, higher in service sectors and higher amongst women. It’s high in the NHS (see Table 2 below, ambulance staff and support staff have rates over 5% – most likely because of exposure to infectious diseases, moving heavy bodies in confined spaces, and assault by members of the public) and particularly high in domiciliary, support and accommodation services (5.5% in support services for adults with learning disabilities).

To put this into context, a support organisation with 1250 staff which reduced its sickness absence from 5.5% to 4.5% reduced the cost of sick pay by £200,000. It reduced the total wage bill by a lot more as a result of a Quality Checkers intervention, but that was just the sickness absence impact. That’s a fairly typical organisation, but it’s a lot of money!

A table showing sickness absence rates by staff group

Make the workplace happier

Happy people tend to get sick less often. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says that 35% or over 1/3 of sickness absences are minor illnesses (often infectious – see solution 1), musculoskeletal (predominantly back pain) at 18%, a whole range of “other” conditions including accidents, infectious diseases etc at 13% and mental health at 8%. Stress isn’t marked separately, and 8% for mental health has to cover for anxiety and depression as well as stress, so it’s clear that stress-related absence is showing up as minor illness and musculoskeletal pain.

How can you reduce stress in the workplace?

Purpose, i.e. a reason to be there, goes a long way. So does great camaraderie or team spirit.

a) Purpose

People come to work to do a good job. IF they don’t know what’s expected of them then they don’t know if they are doing a good job. Some people respond to it by doing very little – you’re spending money with no good result. If there’s no reward for doing a good job – or worse than that, certain favourite people get rewarded unfairly – then they may even sabotage the success of the organisation. And you’re still paying for this!

Help people to understand why your organisation does what it does, and why it’s worth doing. Give them a stake in the future (which is why the word “stakeholder” is so powerful), by listening and supporting them to come forward with improvements. More money is usually a mistake (yes it’s been proven that rewarding certain behaviours results in more of those behaviours, but damage to the overall profitability of the company by far more than the amount of bonuses paid) – people want a word of thanks or just to be listened to and treated with respect more than money.

b) Team spirit

Everyone likes to work in a happy team. Actually, that’s not true! There are many different types of people, and some want to be left alone to get on with it. But everyone prefers a work environment where the happy people are happy, and the quiet people can feel happiness (peaceful happiness) in their environment.

At the same time, a commercial organisation isn’t supposed to be an entertainment park, so the wrong way to make people happy is to bring in lots of expensive toys. Pogo stick races and free pizza for breakfast may be how Google attracts the brightest and the best, but once they’re in the door, they work pretty hard. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer was famous for working extremely long hours and having her assistant schedule toilet breaks into her work calendar, but that intensity of working had a mixed reception from investors. Yahoo was ultimately sold to Version, so we’re certainly not recommending people work too hard.

There is a happy medium.You can create an environment where people feel part of the team, feel respected for the role they play and what they contribute to the success of the team, the division and the whole organisation is the ideal. It will come about when people consider their work colleagues also friends, and feel a loyalty and commitment to them.

And a happy workplace will also reduce sickness absence – for some reason happy people get sick (on average) less often.

The two things that won’t improve your company’s sickness absence

Clamp down on sickness – require authorisation in advance

This doesn’t work. When you force people to come to work, they bring their infectious diseases and bad moods with them. When you tell people that you don’t trust them to be honest about their need for sick days, you tell them you don’t trust them with anything. You’ll keep the ones who can’t get another job, but you’ll lose the good workers – because nobody likes to work for people who don’t trust them.

A well dressed business man in a bad mood at his desk at work, shouting down the phone

Paying people more money if they don’t take sickness days

This doesn’t work either. People like to do a good job, but at the same time, what gets measured gets done, so if you tell them you’ll give them a score for a particular behaviour, then all you’ll get is that behaviour.

Mayer was paid $239 million in the 5 years at Yahoo. She claims it delivered value. But where’s Yahoo now?

You can see on Table 2 above that senior management don’t take time off sick. Is this really true, or does it just not appear on their staff record – are they “working from home” (but missing all the important meetings)?

In summary

Sickness absence isn’t really the problem – the problem is productivity. Sick people cost money in salary, but don’t do any work. But unproductive people can appear to be working very hard, full of busy-ness, and in reality damaging the organisation.

Sickness absence is one way to look at productivity – poor figures may mean that you’ve got a toxic workplace and you could improve customer satisfaction, and reduce costs (which in combination mean much higher profits) by doing some small and low cost things to improve sickness absence.

And probably the biggest impact on that is the quality of your managers. Good managers get higher productivity and higher success – often by the simple action of treating their staff like human beings!


“The organisation” doesn’t exist – it’s made up of people. Change only happens when people embrace the change. The ‘benefits’ are the reasons why they will embrace it

07 January 2020

Oliver Randall

"People are the most important consideration in any change." (On Change) "We are focused on exploring the world of change and helping it develop. All our thoughts try to challenge the status quo and take Change to a clearer, faster initiative. We simplify change." (On TCC)