8 April 2001
Like all managers, most notably football managers, HR managers are prone to use the odd cliché. For every football manager who revels in "a game of two halves", an HR manager somewhere is speaking with apparent sincerity about how "people are the firm's most important asset". Despite the collective cringe that follows this pronouncement, many employers still resolutely defend their claims to this effect.
Of course, for any people-based business, and particularly one like law, where a firm or department really is only as good as the people in it, the cliché becomes a truism. But before you rush off to rewrite your latest induction brochure to include some statement on the importance of people, why not take a moment to consider whether such blandishments in fact stand up to scrutiny.
Besides the fact that you expect many employees to work excessive hours, in some cases to the detriment of their non-work relationships, what about the day-to-day environment in which you expect them to operate?
When was the last time you offered or insisted upon any member of staff undergoing a workstation audit? This involves a thorough analysis of the arrangement of mouse, keyboard, screen and chair and how this alignment might be affecting posture and consequently pain.
There may be some mileage in the oft-raised concern that we are too quick to pay heed and give credence to a growing list of workplace ailments and pseudo-psychological syndromes. But, as repetitive strain injury (RSI) proved, there is often something medically sound at the centre of what at first appears to be a conspiracy between hypochondriacs and quacks.
Enter sick-building syndrome (SBS). The latest in a long line of workplace disorders, the premise of SBS is that a certain proportion of sickness absence is caused by an unhealthy working environment. Regardless of the accuracy of claims that poor office conditions can be equated directly with more time off, there is something intuitively right about SBS. Of course, staff in plush offices get sick, and while working in poorly-designed offices with no natural light can be depressing, it does not itself carry a cast-iron guarantee of ill-health. The real issue is not about the work environment in itself, but rather the relationship it has to motivation. Regardless of how deep the shagpile carpet in their office, someone who does not enjoy their work will always find it easier to take that occasional - or indeed regular - day off "sick".
In many ways bosses have got building design all wrong. The typical approach is for a plush reception to give way to fairly nasty offices, until one reaches the top floor, where the boardroom and directors' offices are located. Here the plush carpets and oak panelling begin again. If there is such a thing as a sick building, it must surely have something to do with this type of manifestly unfair arrangement. But what can be done about it?
It is fair to assume that there is little prospect of the oak panelling coming down to be replaced by reclaimed woodchip in some Changing Rooms-style transformation. Which is where the workstation audit comes into play. If there is one way in which working conditions do play a part in reducing sickness absence, it is through making sure that desks are properly set up to reduce the impact of complaints such as back pain and neck ache. Of course, for those more inclined to all things New Age, there is always the possibility of encouraging employees to get their chakras properly aligned through a spiritual audit of workplace energies. Failing that, why not make use of one of the growing number of occupational feng shui consultants? This last group are a particularly helpful bunch, offering handy suggestions such as removing all those piles of paper (they are energy absorbing) and getting rid of those harmful energy-sapping computer screens. The result will be a healthy, if slightly less productive, office environment.
Absence due to disease needs positive attendance management.
Treat all sickness as if it is genuine. Do not start by looking for conflict or problems.
Pay attention to the critical times for action, such as when the absence begins and when a sick note is provided.
Believe that everyone wants to be normal.
You need facts and measurements.
Good communication makes the problem easier.
You must know when to say, "We did our best, but now we're at the end of the road".
Source: Positive Attendance Management by Bill McCulloch, published by PPP Healthcare.