A 2013 Wellness in the Workplace survey report, commissioned by The Southern Cross Health Society, Gallagher Bassett and BusinessNZ investigated the link between wellness and absence and the associated cost to business.
It identified that 'While prior research has examined some of the issues discussed, there has been no previous attempt to combine the quantitative aspects of absence with those relating to its costs and drivers and the wellness and wellbeing of employees'.
Key messages were that:
- Employee absenteeism does indeed cost the New Zealand economy considerably
- Despite New Zealand’s favourable showing compared with a similar UK survey, areas remain where New Zealand businesses can improve
- Any gains to the national economy require changes from both the public and private sector, but that there are more clear areas where the public sector could do better
- Firstly the report identifies that with an improving economy, New Zealand’s long-term problem of hiring suitable staff with the right skill sets will become more acute.
- Secondly, the report reminds us about the looming reality of an aging workforce, highlighting that only 12.5% of business have policies or arrangements in place to attract and support older workers e.g. (reduced hours of work, working time flexibility, lighter duties or a degree of focus on transition to retirement).
So what are the primary causes of absense in New Zealand? There were differences for manual vs non-manual employees which I won't discuss in this blog, but interestingly the most widespread drivers identified by far were not directly work related:
- non-work related illness and injury, followed by
- Caring for a family member/dependent due to illness/injury
Its important to then acknowledge that direct occupational health and wellness initiatives do also figure prominently, including return to work plans, training and support for managers on managing absence and health & wellbeing programs.
But it does beg the question what should HR and OHS leaders focus on to improve absenteeism within our organisations? In my opinion it depends upon a number of factors relating to our situation including our role and position within the organisation, the current culture within the organisation and indeed the size and type of the organisation. In addition our own skill, experience and aims are important too.
The reasons for this are whilst culture change and group engagement might be the the most effective solution, they may also be the the hardest to achieve and while various health and wellbeing initiatives may be less effective they may be the things that we have use to have the most influence in our current situation.
Culture change requires a commitment to change that must come from the leaders within an organisation. So lets consider, for example that maybe you are not currently a leader, but that you have strong aspirations that you carry out in a powerful way to indeed make a considerable difference in how engaged people around the work they do and how the organisation operates. Even if you are totally committed and use your skills and abilities wisely to become a successful influencer it takes time! In a small organisation you typically have to influence a business owner who has final say.
In a large organisation, there are many layers of power and politics to work through to influence the culture and work on improving engagement on a large scale, unless you are employed in a leadership position and can have direct influence.
When we consider policy and procedural changes to general working arrangements like 'flexible work hours' and line managers taking responsibility for managing absence. These are general HR interventions that require firstly engagement with the HR leaders and secondly a strong line manager engagement to ensure that any newly implemented policies do indeed become widely followed procedures.
There are many organisations where policies are not 'living' and are disconnected from the real day-to-day procedures people follow. If an organisation is going through major change, downsizing, upsizing or merging it will influence whether it is timely attempt to implement or update policies.
Finally, when we consider direct wellness interventions its important that the intervention is appropriate for the individuals or the group that it is being provided to. This might sound quite straight forward, but I have been in many a conversation with program coordinators implementing occupational health and wellness initiatives because they like the sound of them, without actively and rigorously identifying he needs of the group.
The Wellness in the Workplace survey report identified the biggest reasons for absence were
- non-work related illness and injury, followed by
- Caring for a family member/dependent due to illness/injury.
Interestingly the most effective wellness programs have strong elements of 'engagement' and 'culture change' built in, for example:
- Team members are engaged to identify needs
- Team members are recruited to create a network of champions/influencers
- Programs are linked to business strategy and core values
- Senior leaders are recruited to promote the program