Don't worry, be happy

Last year's Industrial Society research entitled "Maximising Attendance" revealed that sickness absence costs the UK economy £13bn annually. It is surprising, therefore, that only 28 per cent of organisations claim to record all absences, and that there still seems to be a belief that nothing can be done to improve the situation. Companies that have tried to do so have found that the key to increasing attendance is to first discover what makes people want to be in the workplace. Marks & Spencer famously failed to achieve this by insisting on all absentees producing a doctor's certificate. After an initial drop in absenteeism, employees rebelled and the figures increased to more than they were originally. All they had done was create bad feeling, and they swiftly abandoned the policy.

But what creates a culture of high sickness absence in the first place? Sadly, it is all the things that law firms deal with on a daily basis: long hours, high levels of stress and a lack of balance between work and private life. It is important to distinguish between genuine sickness absences and absences caused by stress or responsibilities at home; private medical insurance will not be much help to an employee who is suffering from stress, and flexible working arrangements will not help if you need a hip replacement. However, employers do need to recognise that problems at home or at work that cause stress will impact on health, and any absence, whatever the reason, has the same impact on the bottom line. Addressing the problem of absenteeism also means addressing employees' health and emotional well-being as well as the culture of the organisation as a whole.

Health insurance products are probably the most obvious way of getting people back to work who are genuinely sick. Private medical insurance (PMI) can dramatically decrease waiting time for operations and other inpatient care, and employees are far more likely to seek advice early if they know it is being paid for by the company. The Confederation of British Industry's 2000 report into absence and labour turnover shows that employers offering PMI lose 12 per cent fewer days than those who do not, but it was ranked only ninth by employers as a useful tool for reducing absence.

Kerrie Rowland, benefits manager at Allen & Overy (A&O), says that PMI does reduce sickness absence because it means people can be treated quickly. But she says that PMI was not introduced as a sickness absence tool. "We're in a labour market where it's expected [as part of the benefits package]," she says.

PMI is certainly a "status" benefit, but while it may buy loyalty and will certainly get sick people back to work more quickly, it will not stop them from becoming ill in the first place. This is perhaps why preventative methods such as health screening are becoming increasingly popular. Many employers, particularly in high-stress organisations like law firms, are beginning to see that health screening can spot potential problems before they become serious, requiring the employees to take time off work, and also increase employee awareness of their own health and well-being in general.

This same idea of preventing problems before they arise is the theory behind stress management, which is a big problem in the legal industry.

At A&O, the human resources (HR) department has a policy of ensuring the mental well-being of its employees. "We have a policy on sickness absence which focuses on short-term absence," says Rowland. "There are a number of trigger points [at which it is actioned] when a certain number of sick days have been taken over a rolling 12-month period, and then the employee is asked to attend a counselling session with their personnel representative and/or their line manager."

It is difficult to communicate this sort of policy to employees, who may feel that they are being checked up on, but A&O tries to make it clear that this is not the case. "The intention is not to dispute the genuineness of the absence – rather, we try to see if there was an underlying reason, such as problems gaining treatment, and then we'll try to point out ways in which the firm can help. We're concerned about the health of our staff." Since the scheme began in April 1999, Rowland says there has been a noticeable decline in sickness absence.

The key to dealing with stress, then, is to act, not react. Rowland explains that A&O's occupational health scheme has been particularly successful. "It's positive because it seeks to be proactive," she says. She believes occupational health bridges a real gap in terms of sickness absence. Because of the Data Protection Act, doctors are not allowed to talk to patients' employers, but as Rowland points out, "as an employer, you cannot be sympathetic if you don't know about the problem". Through the retained services of an occupational health service and a psychologist, then, an employer can be instructed without having to know spec-ifically what the problem is.

Other forms of workplace counselling include employee assistance programmes (EAPs), a service that is usually telephone-based and which can offer counselling to employees and their families on almost any issue. Besides the telephone, the interview can take place by email or face to face. While they are strictly confidential, EAPs do offer employers valuable information about general areas of concern and ways in which they might improve the culture of the organisation to change this.

But how does this impact on sickness absence, and ultimately on the bottom line? "We've always been keen to develop an integrated approach," says Colin Whitehead, business development manager at EAP provider Independent Advisory Counselling Service (Icas). "There's now a realisation that healthcare is linked to psychiatric care, and EAPs represent a preventative means of support." Whitehead positions EAPs not so much as a counselling service, but more as a life-management service.

This holistic approach has infiltrated much of HR's practice, with many employers recognising at last that there is a strong link between how happy people are and how well they perform.

Ragini Varia of holistic therapists KiTherapy explains how alternative therapies are helping to keep down sickness absence. The service is individually tailored to each company and each employee. It includes a range of therapies, from the Alexander Technique to naturopathy as well as cold-busting days for the whole company. Varia says that as well as being less stressed, employees who use these sorts of therapies also have better immune systems and are less likely to pick up any colds and bugs that are going around. "Although it may never be possible to eliminate stress at work completely, it can be managed like any other business risk," she says. And for those who are sceptical, Varia points to one of her clients – an orthodontic company of 80 employees whose sickness absence rate plummeted from 25 per cent to 10 per cent after using the programme.

Bill McCulloch, author of Positive Attendance Management, believes that the key to reducing sickness absence is to tie attendance management directly into the bottom line and to recognise that social problems impact on health and can be prevented early on. The only way to have a successful impact on absence is not to stop people taking time off, but rather to create a work environment in which they want to be present.

Improving the quality of working life and creating a relaxing environment should not be underestimated in the battle to reduce absenteeism. And even if you are not the yoga and crystal therapy type, there is a lot to be said for recognising all of your employees' needs.

Someone with worries at home is just as likely to get ill and just as likely to stay at home to deal with them, as an employee who has problems at work is to take a day off to escape them.

Tom Shorter, managing director of concierge company Enviego, says: "We try to offer not a concierge service, but a lifestyle service – a more complete image of the wellbeing package. For a flat rate per employee of around £40 a month, employees can call the service to do just about anything for them, from getting a car serviced or a washing machine repaired to buying gifts or booking tickets. They'll even walk your dog for you – all at competitive rates. For cash-rich, time-poor employees such as lawyers, it can be invaluable."

When the service was tested on a pilot group, absenteeism fell by 10 per cent over a three-month period. So do household chores alone really have such an effect on our health? Shorter thinks not. "It has to be put in place with strong management and a good working environment," he says. "Rooms where people can get away from their desks and relax, exterior views and a happy, modern culture." n