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Workplace Sickness by Numbers

Workplace absence is a concern for a whole manner of businesses. After all, lost work days can have the potential to delay projects and upset deadlines. But before employers start putting strategies in place to try and reduce absences, we need to take a more detailed look at their triggers.

Recently at Benenden, we surveyed 2,500 employees about their sick days, trying to pinpoint the most prolific workplace ailments and the ways employers could try to guard against them.

When is it acceptable to call in sick?

When respondents were asked when they thought it was acceptable to call in sick, these ten ailments were mentioned most frequently:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Flu
  • Sickness bugs
  • Migraines
  • Stress
  • Mental health problems
  • Hospitalisation
  • A head cold
  • A headache

This top ten could suggest that physical health is very much the sickness-norm, while mental health is still approached with a degree of stigma.

Tipping the balance

When you take a look at the more detailed figures, the gulf between physical and mental illness is even clearer. 73 percent, 71 percent and 59 percent of those surveyed thought that vomiting, diarrhoea and flu were, respectively, the most acceptable reasons for calling in sick.

In contrast, just 19 percent of employees thought that stress was an acceptable reason for taking time off, while 17 percent thought that broader mental health issues warranted a period of absence. Not only that: 42 percent of the employees we surveyed consider their workplace to view stress as a sign of weakness. This is despite stress being the source of most UK absences.

A lack of understanding

It’d be unfair to assume that this is all down to deliberate stigma. A lot of the time, it’s simply due to a lack of understanding.

Stress doesn’t just involve feeling the pressure, it comes with a host of physical symptoms that can make working next to impossible. Nausea, headaches, stomach upsets, heart palpitations, dizziness and aches and pains can all stem from stress; disrupting concentration and, sometimes, leading to more serious mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

We also found evidence that employers could be neglecting employee wellbeing in other ways, too. 28 percent of employees reported being forced to use a full day of their holiday allowance in order to attend a doctor’s appointment. 48 percent of survey respondents even said that they didn’t feel like their employers care about their physical and mental wellbeing at all.

What can we do?

76 percent of employees say they perform at their best when they feel good about their health. This suggests that an investment in health and wellbeing could prove much less costly to businesses in the long-run (when compared to working days lost to sickness).

Currently, 82 percent of employers don’t contribute to healthcare, while 91 percent of employees told us that their employers don’t contribute to things like gym memberships and other activities. This is despite the NHS reporting that exercise can improve both our physical and mental health.

With working days lost to absence numbering 27.3 million in 2014/2015, it appears as though an investment in employee health could not only benefit employees themselves but businesses as a whole.

This article was first published on 26th November 2015.