Changing absence into presence

by 13 Nov 2006

The high cost of absenteeism to business has been widely documented. Melissa Yen examines this trend and looks at how some organisations have tackled absenteeism in their workplaces

The productivity of any organisation is linked to the health of its employees, and ultimately, the bottom line. According to a study conducted by The University of Western Australia, absenteeism costs the private sector at least $2 billion and the public sector approximately $5 billion a year in lost productivity. The same study found that, on average, 2.7 per cent of the Australian workforce is absent on unapproved leave on any given day.

There is a dollar figure associated with every ‘day off’ an employee takes, says Chris Rabba, managing director of Peak Health Management. This figure will vary based on the employee, their role within the organisation and the organisation itself. “The corporate realities of the day are dictating a streamlined workforce, which means the same person is now doing much more work.” Consequently, the cost of that same person taking a ‘sickie’ increases significantly for the organisation.

A survey conducted by Hallis found that 42 per cent of the Australian workforce admits to taking unscheduled days off for reasons other than being sick. It also reported that, on average, permanent employees used up 80 per cent of their annual entitlement. Such statistics point to the increasing importance of health and wellbeing issues in business.

Factors such as additional work pressures, additional life pressures and lack of work-life balance have become associated with absenteeism, according to Rabba. “It is important to attempt to identify the reasoning behind unscheduled absenteeism as physical illness is no longer the only (and probably the least likely) reason,” he says. As a result, he adds workers have become time poor. “The ‘sickie’becomes an opportunity to play catch up with day-to-day responsibilities or becomes the only opportunity to have a ‘mental break’ day, playing havoc with the wellness status of our workforce and the wellness status of a company’s bottom line.”

BT busts a mental move

The benefits of including health and wellbeing on the business agenda have been recognised by BT in the UK. The company has worked with its trade unions to create the ‘Work Fit – Positive Mentality’campaign, which provides guidance to its 104,000 employees across the globe on how to improve their mental health at work and at home.

Since opting to tackle these issues a few years ago, BT has seen a 30 per cent reduction in mental health sickness absence. This represents the difference between having 650 to 700 people a day off with stress, depression and anxiety to a current level of 500. The benefits to the bottom line of BT, which employs 104,000 people globally, are easy to appreciate in terms of productivity and reduced absenteeism, says chief medical officer of BT, Paul Litchfield. “We also recognise that a happier, healthier workforce will be a more productive one generally. BT believes that if you invest in a person and help them to maintain their mental wellbeing, perhaps in times of difficulty, that person will repay you with loyalty.”

Litchfield says stress claims have dramatically reduced, the medical retirement rate for mental illness is down by 80 per cent and 75 per cent of long-term workers with mental health issues return to their own job at BT (against a national figure of 20 to 25 per cent). This provides BT with savings on recruitment, training and other costs as well as an opportunity to retain such workers’ skills.

The campaign involves a 16-week program, designed to encourage staff to adopt small changes in lifestyle and use proven techniques for increasing their resilience, so they can cope better with the pressures of modern living and work more creatively and productively.

It is estimated that one in four UK workers will suffer a mental health problem in their working lives. Employees in the UK and across the globe will be given information on how to combat mental ill-health, Litchfield says. The program will demonstrate how regular exercise, healthy eating, relaxation techniques and even the support of friends and family can help to ward off depression, stress and anxiety. It will also educate staff to help reduce the stigma of mental illness and promote the range of support services the company provides.

“For the individual, it is all about helping them to help themselves cope better with the pressures and pace of modern living,” says Litchfield. “This program will help our people get mentally fit for their work and home lives. We have also managed to do a lot of high-profile external media interviews in the UK about the program, which has helped to open up the subject for debate.”

While the campaign is only a few weeks old, the initial challenges have involved winning the support of the unions and establishing the correct communications framework to reach BT’s 104,000 employees. “There have been regular articles in BT Today, our intranet newspaper, we held a launch event at BT Centre and, with the union we have plans for a series of roadshows to be held at major BT buildings in the UK and globally,” Litchfield says.

Alexander the great hits Parliament

Research also points to an increasing number of workers’ compensation claims in Australia, and in particular, more complex claims for conditions such as occupational overuse syndrome. Musculoskeletal injuries represented 65 per cent of Federal Government employee workers’ compensation claims, according to Comcare’s 2003 annual report. The average cost of a back injury claim (repetitive movement, low muscle loading) in 2005 and 2006 was $48,421 while the average cost of a work pressure claim in 2005 and 2006 was $111,679.

‘Fit for Work – Fit for Life’ training has helped organisations reduce costs associated with stress and injury in the workplace. The training helped the department of parliamentary reporting staff in Canberra halve its compensation premium and reduce to zero the number of claims for overuse injury. “We had a high rate of overuse injury and we realised we needed to do some prevention work,” says Brigitte Pratt who was director of OHS for the department at the time.

The training helps staff control pressures of work and other sources of stress, and also took into account external factors such as furniture, desk height and computer keyboards. One-on-one tuition is provided to help recognise chronic tension patterns associated with ongoing pain or injury or stress issues, and learning to change these for the better, thereby addressing the underlying causes. This is referred to as the Alexander Technique.

“I had heard of the Alexander Technique, and so engaged Freedom in Action to run tailored courses for our people. They were small classes with only eight participants in each.”

By recognising chronic tension patterns associated with ongoing pain or injury or stress issues, and learning to change these for the better and addressing the underlying causes through the Alexander Technique, Pratt found that staff benefited from the personal attention and follow up that was provided.

“We found ourselves running the courses on a regular basis. The attitude of our staff changed because of the specific attention they received through the program and through the technique.” The courses involve techniques such as massage posture correction and relaxation, explaining why people hurt in the workplace and what can be done to prevent overuse injury.

For Pratt, absenteeism and compensation claims became an issue for the department, as the hours people put in and what was expected of them did not measure up to the public service image, which made knowing their body and listening to their body important.