The real cost of sick days

“Don’t you have to work tomorrow?”

“She’ll be right, mate. I’ll just chuck a sickie.”

Sound familiar? It should. For better or worse, “chucking a sickie” is part of Australian workplace culture.

According to the Department of Human Services, absenteeism leads to about 92 million lost workdays every year and costs the Australian economy more than $33 billion annually in wages and lost productivity. And it’s only increasing, with the rate of absenteeism growing by 7% since 2010.

The costs of absenteeism include the cost of the paid leave itself, the cost of covering absences by using temporary staff, paying overtime to existing workers and the decreased productivity and effects on staff morale.

Obviously, these statistics don’t tell the whole story. A legitimate sick day generally means a quicker recovery and less chance of infecting your co-workers. This means that a single legitimate sick day can have a net positive effect on business.

Understanding and managing the underlying causes of absenteeism can save your business money, improve staff productivity and morale and reduce staff turnover.

Attitudes to sick days

Sick leave is a contentious issue. Across Australian businesses, employees and employers have widely divergent attitudes towards sick days.

Firstly, it’s important to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sick days. According to Fair Work Australia, legitimate sick leave can be taken when an employee can’t work because of a personal illness or injury. This can include stress and pregnancy-related illnesses. Carer’s leave can be taken to care for or support a member of their immediate family or household who is sick, injured or has an unexpected emergency.

Illegitimate sick leave, on the other hand, involves using sick leave for other purposes to those outlined above.

Among some employees, there exists a culture of entitlement. For these people, paid sick leave is less a privilege than a right, which they feel entitled to use how they wish. Often, these kinds of employees will exhibit a pattern of behaviour that extends beyond the odd day off. They will take large numbers of sick days, there may be systematic patterns of absence, they may regularly arrive late and leave early, and extend their breaks beyond reasonable times.

The problem, however, does not entirely reside with these ‘entitled’ employee. The misuse of sick leave can often be traced back to mismanagement and problematic workplace culture. Staff who aren’t motivated or engaged may take more time off than they otherwise might. Similarly, a toxic workplace culture can increase the incidence of sick leave through stress, morale, and mental health issues.

An employer’s attitude toward sick leave can also have a big effect. Some businesses simply accept sick days as a part of doing business. In these cases, a doctor’s certificate is rarely required, sick days often aren’t tracked or documented and the rate of absenteeism isn’t tracked or questioned.

On the other hand, a lot of Australian businesses swing too far the other way, discouraging or sometimes intimidating or threatening employees from taking even legitimate sick days. While this approach might cut down on sick leave, it usually has detrimental effects on company culture, staff morale and can lead to increased staff turnover. In extreme cases, it can also lead to problems with workplace advocate groups, unions, and government agencies like Fair Work Australia.

Reducing sick leave

The solution to absenteeism is not about changing up your (or your business’s) attitude to sick leave. Cracking down on sick days or being excessively liberal with them won’t do much to change the issue. Absenteeism is usually the symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself.

If you’re running a business, you can’t get rid of sick leave; nor should you try. But you can take a number of positive steps to address the causes of absenteeism. These could be company-wide issues like an unsanitary workplace or a dysfunctional culture or individual issues like a lack of motivation. Addressing these issues can improve your staff health, wellbeing, workplace culture and environment and help to reduce the incidences of legitimate and illegitimate sick leave.

The real cost of sick days
Photo: 4330009, Pixabay.

Commercial office cleaning

Make sure your workplace is regularly and thoroughly cleaned by professional commercial office cleaners. Keeping the workplace clean and sanitary will help to reduce the spread of illness (especially during the flu season). It can also improve air quality, which reduces the incidences of respiratory ailments likes asthma and allergies. A clean, tidy office also improves workplace comfort and staff morale.

Promote healthy eating

Supplying fresh fruit at work and replacing vending machine junk food with healthier options is a great way to promote healthy eating around the office. An improved diet can help with general wellbeing and mood and concentration.

Encourage movement and exercise

This one is especially important for office workers. Ensure that desk workers get up from their desks and move around during the day. Encourage people to get out of the office and go for a walk. Offer alternative workstation options like standing desks. Your company could partner with nearby gyms and fitness centres to offer discounted memberships to your staff.

Promote workplace mental health

Stress and work-related mental health issues can dramatically increase the incidence of sick leave. Promoting a healthy discussion and understanding of workplace mental health can encourage people to seek help and better manage these issues, rather than just falling back on sick leave.

Improve workplace culture

A dysfunctional or toxic workplace will have a huge effect on the amount of sick leave your business deals with. An unhealthy workplace can increase stress and work-related mental health issues. It can also lead to an increase in physical ailments among your staff. Examine your workplace culture and take steps to improve it where you can.

Properly monitor, record and manage sick leave

It’s important to properly document and manage sick leave. Ensure you have a sick leave policy that clearly lays out the process for taking leave and the requirements for when a doctor’s certificate is necessary. Make sure your staff understand the policy and are ready to comply. Monitoring sick leave helps you to identify staff that are regularly using their leave, whether legitimately or otherwise.

Be communicative and compassionate.

While having a sick leave policy is important, it’s also essential that it’s flexible and managed with compassion. Once you’ve identified staff that is regularly using their leave, you should try to understand why. Are they rorting the system? Are they stressed or unhappy at work? Do they serious medical issues they have been unwilling to disclose? Understanding why can help you to assist and manage their problems and hopefully reduce absenteeism and improve staff wellbeing and productivity.

Remember that sick leave is the symptom, not the disease. Understanding what’s causing the sick leave will help you get to the root of the problem. Then you can work on solving the problem, rather than just fighting the symptoms.

Mike Bhagat
Mike Bhagat
Mike works as an outreach manager for many property and real estate businesses. His expertise lies in finance, safety products, and real estate.
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