Lifestyle & Work Life Balance

The Impact Of Illness On The Workplace : Offering Help Before Therapy ?

I like a good quote. You may have noticed.

On the subject of illness I can’t think of anyone better than Maya Angelou who said, “Let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let's see if we can't prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.”

The link between ill health at work and its effect on productivity is well-established.

Absenteeism since 1993 has been falling in the UK but the figures are still pretty eye-watering.

Click to Tweet

In Scotland for example recent figures show that 2.2 million working days are lost. Based on the Office of Statistics 2014 Report “Sickness Absence and the Labour Market” total UK figures of absenteeism was 131 million working days lost to illness. This averaged out at 4.4 days per worker. Not a lot you would think over the space of a year. But add that to other reasons for not working (annual leave, family and personal circumstances, public holidays) and the figure begins to tot up. Apply all of that to the national economy and you begin to get the picture.

Here are some more statistics. For those aged 16 and over, men consistently had a lower sickness absence rate than women. Yet, both sexes have seen a fall in their sickness absence rates over the past 20 years. In 2013 men lost around 1.6% of their hours due to sickness, a fall of 1.1 percentage points from 1993 when 2.7% of men’s hours were lost to sickness. Over the same period women have seen a reduction of their hours lost from 3.8% to 2.6%.

Of real concern amongst these figures however is the numbers of people citing stress as the reason for work absence. In a Labour Force survey undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in the year 2015 to 2016 was 488,000 cases, a rate of 1510 per 100,000 workers. When you get to the total number of working days lost to work related stress, depression or anxiety it was 11.7 million days, equating to an average of 23.9 days lost per case. How about this too? In the same year stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.

Stress is more prevalent in the public services, for example in education, health and social care, and public administration and defence, and within these sectors health care workers, teaching professionals, business, media and public service professionals dominate, showing higher levels of stress as compared to all jobs. Work factors mainly causing work related stress, depression or anxiety and cited by respondents to the survey are workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support.

Ever heard of presenteeism? No? Well, neither had I, at least by that term. It makes sense though when you know that it means those employees who attend work even when ill, and the numbers are steadily increasing.

Why is this? We know that businesses and organisations are pressing down on their human resources to get more for less; combined with the development of leaner systems and greater efficiency, presenteeism is fast becoming a serious issue in the wider British productivity debate.

Employees are working in an employment climate that heaps praise on the person who works harder than the next person

Click to Tweet

The competitive culture that celebrates the boss who only gets four hours sleep and still manages to work endless hours. For most people this is not normal. And why should it be? Nonetheless, it still prevails.

There are also millions of British people who are on low wages and possibly on zero hours contracts, signifying in social terms a race to the bottom. 

Employees are fearful of redundancy or being rendered superfluous to requirements due to automation

Click to Tweet

AI and the threat of post-industrialisation change. We get very hot under the collar when we read about the work practices of overseas sweatshops and toy manufacturers but are often blind to how some of our own employment legislation is either woefully ignored or paid lip service. There is no excuse, we have the tools at our disposal and we should use them. In specific regard to absenteeism and presenteeism “should” arguably becomes “must”.

So how can we do our bit in our workplaces to ensure “a love of prevention of illness” as Maya Angelou so perceptively acclaimed? First, and as I have already made reference to, are the legal requirements on all employers, whether you employ just one person or many more, and that fall under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. For many businesses, all that’s necessary is a basic series of practical tasks that will meet the legalities of the Act.

You can check if are in compliance by clicking here on the HSE website index where you will find everything you need to help you implement the requirements. Aspects such as writing your own health and safety policy, assessing and controlling the risks inside the company or organisation, how to involve and consult with employees on health and safety in the workplace; training employees about your health and safety policy; providing the right facilities for employees such as toilets and hand basins with soap and clean hand towels or driers, drinking water, a place to store clothing e.g. coats, jackets, shoes; somewhere to take break periods and to eat; making arrangements for first aid, accidents and ill health, the latter two covered also by RIDDOR: The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 and which places duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises; display the Health and Safety Law poster; employer’s liability insurance; and last but by no means least keep up-to-date with the requirements of the Act.

It may be that you are employing people with special requirements, i.e. expectant mothers, new workers, young workers under the age of 18 where there are particular laws relating to their safety, and those with disabilities. If you do then make sure that your health and safety policy and risk assessments cover their needs. If you have frequent visitors to your workplace, say for instance the general public, clients, contractors, maintenance workers, home workers, freelancers, and business contacts, their safety should also be an essential part of your policy. For those of you who are sharing a workplace with another business or organisation, you will need to consider how their work affects others and also affects you and your staff. Consult with each other and make sure there is a clear agreement about the health and safety of your shared space.

Secondly, we can look to our own ingeniousness to create a workplace that reduces both absenteeism and presenteeism

Click to Tweet

May I perhaps suggest some ways to do this? I’m not saying that you have to use any of them but there may be some that would suit your particular business or organisation.

Encourage collegiality and openness by acknowledging that employees are our colleagues and not worker bees

Support your colleagues through change and life’s challenges

Find ways of implementing flexible working where it’s technically possible and potentially productive

Team up your work colleagues so they can find new ways to work together and build solidity

Try inculcating a real and wider sense of stake-holding

Banish the ridiculous and macho competitive culture by imbuing a sense of cooperation and collaboration

Recognise the wonderful contribution that your employees make every day. It need not be with a drum roll and a lot of fuss – often the quiet word, a hand on               the shoulder, a chat at lunchtime, a laugh and a joke, is all that is needed.

Remember that the common touch turns an average leader into a good leader and a good leader into a great leader.

Click to Tweet

And why not end on a positive note with another quote, this time from the French aviator and author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea”.


Did you find this article useful? If you want to share about illness on the workplace with us please leave your comments.

About the author

Tara Howard

Tara has never been shy of a challenge – from trekking to Everest base camp to twice finishing in the London to Brighton Cycle Ride, or to qualify as a commercial pilot and flight instructor at the age of 22.
She now spearheads her greatest challenge, the Venus Awards.

With a background in running a hotel business in Bournemouth, she has turned her abundant energy and business expertise to ensuring that the Venus Awards becomes the UK's premier community for recognising and rewarding working women in the UK.

She is fast becoming a figurehead and influencer for women in business, combining all of this with being a mother of four children.

Check out Tara's vlog - her War on Ageing

Leave a Comment