As the winter blues arrive, many companies struggle to deal with increases in sickness absence in the workplace. Colds and flus start to do the rounds, while Seasonal Affective Disorder brings with it additional causes for employee sick days which are more challenging for employers to identify.
Fortunately companies aren’t helpless against these seasonal challenges, and there are a number of measures which can be taken to help counter the factors which contribute to winter sick days.
The cost of winter sick days
Data from the Office of National Statistics released in 2017 showed that “minor illnesses” such as colds caused more than 34 million working days to be lost in that year. Just over 28 million work days were lost due to muscoskeletal issues, while depression, anxiety and stress contributed to 14.3 million lost days,
Additional studies have shown that employees take 53% more sick days in January, making it the toughest month for businesses to help ensure their staff remains healthy and motivated. On the flip side, companies should also be aware of employees who continue to work despite suffering from a minor illness (known as ‘presenteeism’) but afraid to take the time off due to work pressures, and the potentially negative impact this can have on a business’s performance.
1. Encourage sickness absence when necessary
Recognising when an employee is suffering from a winter bug and encouraging them to take necessary time off is the first step to preventing some of the longer term problems of presenteeism, not least the cold spreading throughout the workforce.
Having a policy of ‘stay at home when you’re ill’ and a culture which embodies this, while putting the employees’ health at the forefront, will help to ensure that staff maintain a healthier lifestyle and reduce the spread of illness in the workplace.
2. Promote a culture of exercise
Regular exercise is the most effective way to build up your defenses against winter viruses, so promoting a company culture which actively encourages employees to work out is a surefire method of building a healthy workforce resilient to winter sicknesses.
Larger companies sometimes feature on-site gyms which employees are free to use, while offering free or discounted membership to local gyms is another great way to give staff the impetus to work on their physical health. In January gym membership spikes, so if you have a gym membership program for your employees it’s a perfect time to push this to the forefront.
3. Encourage a healthy diet
With staff spending a significant part of their day in the workplace, employers have an opportunity to encourage healthy eating and positively influence their habits. Replacing the fizzy drinks, chocolate bars and crisps in the snack machines with healthy options can help improve eating habits, while providing bowls of fruits alongside water fountains ensures that healthy snacks are readily available.
A centralised place for staff to share healthy recipes (for instance on your company’s intranet) can further promote a culture of healthy eating and reduce the risk of major illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
4. Prevent rather than cure
Making sure that the work environment is a clean place for your employees might seem like stating the obvious, but with 80% of infectious diseases transmitted by touch, it’s worth instilling in your company’s culture. Make cleaning materials available and encourage your employees to take necessary measures against the spread of illnesses with regular hand washing and keeping their workstations clean.
Some companies also offer flu jabs for their employees, helping reduce the spread of the virus and reducing the number of absences. Staff vaccinations can help to ease the pressures that a heavy outbreak might have on employee attendances, nipping illness in the bud.
5. Discuss regular sickness absence with your employees
If an employee is taking recurrent short term absences you should discuss the issue with them and provide support and morale. While you should ask all employees returning from a sickness absence how they are feeling and show that you are taking their health and well-being seriously, with recurrent absences it is important to take extra care to understand the situation so that you can help the employee resolve their health concerns swiftly.
Ensure confidentiality and if necessary keep a record of the conversation on your performance management system, and once you understand their condition make it clear you are there to offer any support necessary.
6. Identify and address the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Harder to spot but equally detrimental to any business’s winter absence rates is Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depressive disorder which commonly affects people during the winter months. Seasonal Affective Disorder is thought to affect approximately 10 million people each year and can have a serious impact on a company’s performance.
SAD can cause people to become extra sensitive to stress, feel apathy towards their role and become quick to anger, while problems with concentration and a lack of passion leads to a drop in productivity in the workplace. Managers who are sensitive to SAD in one of their employees should consider reducing their workload or adjusting their schedule to alleviate any potential stress, and if necessary encouraging them to take time off so that they can recuperate and return to work firing on all cylinders.
Using a light box can also help to offset the symptoms of SAD; these devices can be placed on a desk and simulate sunshine, helping to increase serotonin, and are especially effective when used in conjunction with vitamin D supplements. While SAD might be tricky to spot, these measures will help to create an office environment working towards alleviating them.