Monitoring staff health can play a major role in illness prevention and should be a key constituent of any wellness strategy
Any good health and wellbeing strategy should include measures for monitoring and assessing staff to identify and prevent potential illnesses before they turn into long-term causes of absence. It should also be supportive in aiding the return to work of employees who have been off sick.
Carrying out an absence audit is one of the key ways of identifying parts of the business where absence is an issue and the causes of that. This can be undertaken by collecting any available figures from absence management systems and employee assistance programme providers.
The figures may indicate, for example, that a particular department has a high incidence of stress due to understaffing, or that employees are reporting musculoskeletal illnesses. If so, then the organisation might want to consider various solutions such as putting in place an employee assistance programme, if stress is the issue, or carrying out a health and safety audit to check for potential causes of musculoskeletal injuries. This can help prevent staff being absent for the same reasons in the future.
While an organisation’s occupational health department, if it has one, will play a vital role in identifying and preventing long-term illness, the role of line managers can often be even more important.
Gill Weston, a psychobiologist from BUPA’s psychological services team, says: "The key thing is to look for change, which can be physical, psychological or behavioural. Is the employee acting differently or complaining of headaches, tension in their back, any aches or pains? Are they having trouble talking or getting breathless? It is looking for things you haven’t noticed before."
Once a potential problem is identified, then so must the cause be. "You have to talk to them and find out what is wrong, find out what is causing the problem. If it is stress, what is causing that stress, is it something to do with work or something at home? If it is work, have they got too much to do or too little? Have they got personal problems with people, is there any bullying or harassment going on, is there enough control over how they do their work, have they [got] support from colleagues or their managers?" adds Weston.
By identifying issues early on, the company can remind employees of healthcare benefits available to them that may be of assistance. For example, a member of staff with a back problem could seek treatment and claim the money back from a company-provided cash plan before it gets too serious, or an employee suffering from stress might find the company’s employee assistance programme helpful.
Addressing any issues as early as possible can help prevent the employee from ending up on long-term sick leave. It is well documented that the longer an individual is off work, the harder it is for them to return.
Steve Bartlett, consulting director at JLT Benefit Solutions, says that all employers should have a robust absence policy in place that is well communicated to employees and to line managers so that everyone understands what the procedures are. "[That way] the company will know that if certain issues are happening what wellness benefits they should be promoting," he says.
If an employee does end up on long-term sick leave, the next step should be to look at what can be done to help them regain their health and to make it easier for the individual to return to work without suffering any relapse. "It is about taking frequent but small steps, so they may come in for a few hours a day and then gradually increase that over a few weeks – and ensuring that the people they work with are supportive as well. The key things for the manager is that they keep talking to the employee, make sure they keep taking action and make sure that action is appropriate," Weston concludes.
Common causes of absence
For manual workers (in order of prevalence):
For non-manual workers (in order of prevalence):