Imogen Cardwell | Clinical Operations Director at PAM Group
How to minimise employee sickness absence this autumn
Many employees will become too sick to attend work this autumn, due to largely preventable issues, including mental health and respiratory problems.
Every autumn, the number of employees being referred into our occupational health services due to sickness absence increases sharply by around 12%
This year, thousands more employees are at risk of becoming sick this autumn, due to the cost-of-living crisis and high fuel prices impacting both physical and mental health.
Fortunately, there are a number of things employers and managers can do to help employees reduce these health risks, so here are five key areas to focus on.
Five ways to keep employees healthy this autumn
1. Create a psychologically safe workplace
Psychological safety, the extent to which employees feel safe opening up about issues without fear of ridicule or discrimination, is essential to a healthy workforce. Without this, employees will be inclined to hide any health issues until they become too sick to work.
According to our Health at Work survey, Covid is the least stigmatised wellbeing issue, with seven out of ten (71%) employees saying they feel safe discussing this with their manager. However, more needs to be done to open conversations about mental, social and financial health, as fewer than one in two employees feel comfortable discussing this with their boss.
Managers can help to achieve this by conducting new season check-ins with employees, to ask if there are any issues they’re worried about or might struggle with going into winter.
We have a free toolkit managers can use on how to conduct a wellbeing conversation.
2. Help employees create an individual wellbeing plan
As well as asking employees about any issues they might be struggling with, it’s also important for managers to help them create a plan to mitigate these issues. For example, if they’re worried about the cost of heating their house to continue working from home during the winter, would they like to return to office working instead?
If they’re feeling down because they’re living alone, after a relationship breakup or because their child has just left to go to university, is there a support group or other employees going through the same thing that they can meet up with?
If they know their eczema or asthma becomes worse at this time of year, would they like to talk to occupational health services about proactive things they can do to prepare for this? By helping the employees to identify and plan for health risks, managers can help them to mitigate and manage these risks.
3. Signpost to appropriate support
In creating a culture where employees feel safe opening up about health concerns to their manager and seeking support to stay healthy. It’s important that managers understand their role in creating a culture where employees feel safe opening up. This means listening and sign-posting employees to specialist support, rather than offering their own advice.
Essential to guiding managers to do this is making sure they know what support services are in place before they talk to employees, so they can guide employees to approach these for more detailed information. Although these resources might be publicised on a company intranet, managers also need to know what there is and how to guide employees to access it.
If an employee opens up about a more serious health condition, be this feeling depressed or severe backpain, the manager should know in advance what to do. This might mean referring them into occupational health so that a clinician can provide both the employee and manager with advice about what the manager can do to support the employee while they get treatment.
4. Reduce the risk of colds, flu and Covid
The winter months are the optimal time for respiratory infections and colds to spread. In response the NHS is now offering free autumn covid boosters and flu vaccines to those in a clinical risk group and the over-50s. So make sure employees are aware of this and encouraged to take time off work to attend medical appointments if needed.
Following the reduction of Covid restrictions over the past few months, also make sure employees knows what to do if they develop symptoms. In particular, the need to try to stay about home and avoid contact with other people for at least five days.
Consider what anxieties or worries people might have about getting sick with Covid again and what, if any, restrictions you want to reintroduce over the winter months, such as hand sanitising, mask-wearing or homeworking if people are worried. Alternatively, if you want to adhere to changing government advice, make sure employees are aware of this.
5. Take a whole person approach
Few people are only worried about rising energy costs or only going through the menopause or only experiencing joint niggles and pains. Most physical health issues are impacted by mental health issues and vice versa. For example, many mental health conditions are due to social isolation and lack of interaction with others. Meanwhile physical health conditions, such as musculoskeletal pain, can be made worse by feeling stressed and tense.
Social prescribing tackles both issues at once, by connecting employees with volunteer social groups. These groups can range from walking groups and gardening clubs to craft activities and environmental charities. The idea is to prevent the need for pills, such as anti-inflammatories or anti-depressants, by tacking the underlying social issues for sickness.
The approach has been endorsed by GPs and doctors so look at ways of connecting employees with social prescribing activities. You can google social prescribing for your local area or where employees live, and even set up your own workplace scheme to support wider ESG objectives. These groups can also support financial health, as most are free to attend and volunteer-led, eliminating the need for employees to pay for gym membership to keep active.