Deconstructing HR – Tackling Sickness Absence

 In Blogs

Here at the Change Directors HQ, we love watching TV Cookery Shows and we’ve become more than fascinated by the term heard so often  – that of “deconstructing a dish”.  It’s apparently a take on a saying coined by the French Philosopher, Jacques Derrida and means taking apart the foods that are normally combined in the dish and then plating them together in a different way. We decided to apply the concept to a few Hot HR Topics and produced some entertaining results.

In our previous article we concentrated on Talent Management and then proposed adding a few new ingredients to the future mix. Today we look at Sickness Absence

An estimated 137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016. This is equivalent to 4.3 days per worker (the lowest recorded since the series began in 1993, when it was at 7.2 days per worker, the highest level over the reference period).

Since 2003, there has been a decline in the number of days lost to sickness absence, particularly during the economic downturn. Sickness absence fell to a low of 131.7 million days in 2013 but there have been increases in 2014 and 2015.

Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) were the most common reason for sickness absence in 2016, accounting for approximately 34.0 million days lost (24.8% of the total days lost). This was followed by back pain, neck and upper limb problems at 30.8 million days (22.4%). After ‘other’ conditions, mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and serious conditions) were the next most common reason for sickness absence, resulting in 15.8 million days lost (11.5%).

The groups that have seen the greatest reduction in sickness absence rates over the last 2 decades are workers with long-term health conditions, workers aged 50 to 64, and those in the public sector.

Out of Hand

Great news for the UK but watch sickness carefully as it can get out of hand.  Read on…..

I spoke to the HR Director who employ 15,000 people in the UK, have a sick pay scheme which pays up to 3 months per annum at full pay, a further 3 at half pay and pretty good salaries.  We will call the HRD Keith.

Keith told me that sickness absence is running in his company at 10% and he’s certainly taking action. He confirmed that more than 1000 staff are going through the disciplinary process due to sickness absence. Imagine the impact of 1000 disciplinaries on productivity and results let alone the pull his relatively small HR Team; think of the cost to the business, and that the poor guy has to staff up by 10%.  In the end though we can guess who is paying in more ways than one – the customer?

Heady Mix.  

Managing sickness absence is heady mix of Employees, employers, absence metrics, reasons for sickness, trends, doctors, occupational health, statutory requirements, company sick pay, government interventions, doctors, return to work interviews. It’s a long list and we could add more.

The return to work interview has long been heralded in HR circles as the answer to improvements and while I agree it’s a no brainer to have the system in place – it simply will not improve results sufficiently unless its accompanied by other means of driving down SA.

What can organisations do to support staff when they are ill and yet reduce the burden of any over generous sick pay legacy.

Here is a veritable Bouquet Garni of ideas plated up in a different way.


Check that all SA is being recorded. It’s fundamental because the data provides you and your executive with the information that may be needed to make some tough decisions.

Its important that sickness is managed across the whole firm, not just in certain departments.  Recently, in an organisation that we worked with it was only the operations department who were recording SA and thus more than one third of SA was simply going unrecorded and therefore unchecked.

BLT – be less tolerant 

Where it is required.   Remind employees that attending work is a contractual responsibility of the employee.

Choose sick pay levels that suit your needs and that your business can afford in the future

There is no requirement under UK law to pay company sick pay however if you already have a contractual scheme in place you will need to consult if you wish to change the policy.  If you want to change an over generous sick pay legacy, you’ll need board level commitment for any change as it can be emotional!

Smart Working

Businesses who implement Smart Working – flex-hours, remote. hub, part-time, annualised hours, distributed etc tend to have less sickness absence as well as improved productivity of at least 13%.

Tackling sick leave may be unpalatable but getting it right is a recipe for success   Money saved from managing SA more effectively will be better spent on developing your people.

Champagne Moment

By taking action you will reduce costs and put a cheeky little smile on the face of your CEO.  Each £1 we save on sickness goes straight to the bottom line.

Finally, what of Keith the HRD?  Well, we heartily recommend that Keith contacts us at on 07976 509551. We know our onions!

Next time…Organisational Development!


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