Sickness absences: How the UK can do better

News of UK sickness absences reaching their highest level since 2004 will make uneasy reading for employers, with 2.6% of total working hours lost last year.  

Around 185.6 million days were lost due to sickness in 2022, which is the highest level on record, with a notable rise across all age groups. 

Such worker malaise raises fresh questions about the state of employee health and its impact on the UK economy. Absenteeism can cost the UK £14 billion annually.  

Employment lawyers, Winckworth Sherwood, explore some strategies employers can use to mitigate these risks and cultivate a healthier, more productive workforce.  

Encouraging remote and flexible working models

One potential solution is the implementation of remote and flexible working models, with their viability highlighted during the pandemic. Such approaches can help employees maintain a better work/life balance while minimising the risk of spreading illnesses.  

Legally, employees now have a right to request flexible working from day one of their employment and can make up to two requests during a 12-month period. 

The flexibility of home working can alleviate the stress of commuting, create a more comfortable working environment, and allow workers to build their lives around lifestyle or childcare commitments. 

1 in 4 UK workers still work a hybrid working week, with 78% reporting an improved work-life balance. Flexible working can also include flexitime, in which an employee can start earlier or later than ‘core working hours’, and compressed hours, where an employee fulfils full-time hours over a reduced number of days. 

The four-day working week – a worthwhile experiment? 

The employment landscape abounds with companies trialling the four-day working week with no corresponding reduction in pay. 

Of the 61 companies who participated in the country’s largest pilot program, 56 have opted to extend the new working pattern. Employers cite benefits as more productivity and enhanced business performance. 

Typically, happier, more fulfilled employees are more focused and efficient in the workplace, while rested minds may be better when it comes to innovation and creative tasks. 

The model will free up more time for employers to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing. Mental health is the leading cause of long-term sickness absence, so affording employees more time to rest and recharge after a long break can reduce stress levels and their accompanying absences. 

Of course, the four-day week doesn’t come without its pitfalls, so employers will have to weigh up whether it works for their business. For instance, some companies simply won’t have the correct infrastructure of culture in place. 

Take time to weigh up the pros and cons and assess whether you can properly service your clients within that time. An option could be to stagger the days across your workforce so you can remain open five days a week. 

Incentivising employee welfare 

Employers have a crucial role to play in fostering a culture of wellbeing, and improving employee welfare can be a powerful step towards reducing absenteeism.  

According to the ONS, the occupation groups with the highest absence rates are those in caring, service, elementary and administrative positions. These may typically include repetitive, sedentary or overly demanding tasks. 

Make sure to support your workforce with frequent breaks, access to mental health resources and wellness programmes that promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles. 

Can the UK learn from the rest of the world? 

UK employers may do well to take inspiration from our European neighbours, such as the Scandinavian countries, who are frequently cited among the happiest regions to live and work. 

Scandinavian countries typically emphasise a healthy work/life balance with shorter working weeks, longer holiday periods and generous annual leave. 

Flexibility is also a cornerstone of their work cultures, with employees often given the freedom to adjust their work hours to accommodate personal needs or family commitments. The focus is on a results-oriented approach that prides the quality of work over hours spent in the office.  

This flexibility not only enhances work-life balance but also allows individuals to work when they are most productive – for instance, early in the morning or evening.