The price of UK sickness absence

Some startling stats from PwC show that, in UK companies, absence through sickness is costing around £28.8 billion annually or 90% of the cost of absence from work. The UK occupies the unenviable top spot in a global table of sick days off, with an average of 9.1 days per year. That’s double the amount of sick days of our US counterparts and four times that of workers in Asia Pacific. The average for Western Europe is 7.3 days. What are we doing wrong?

Jon Andrews, PwC’s HR consulting lead, believes that companies need to look for ‘ways to improve employees’ health, morale and motivation’. Couldn’t agree more. He also suggests ‘allowing greater workplace flexibility could go a long way to helping break the sickness cycle’. Certainly something to alleviate our long hours culture (UK works longer hours than the rest of Europe) wouldn’t go amiss.

I’m wondering though if serving up a menu of health and wellbeing services, as PwC suggest, is the right answer. Yes, I think support for people who are suffering from burnout and/or problems that are affecting their work, such as bereavement or dealing with debt, is a good thing. But a lot of what can be served up on the wellbeing menu isn’t about the work itself and I think that’s why it might be missing the point, despite good intentions.

For example, public sector workers have the highest level of sickness at 11.1 days – over two weeks per year. That’s three times more than people in technology companies, with the lowest rate of sickness at 3.4 days. My hunch is the hours at some of those tech firms can be pretty arduous, but employees find the work itself more motivating than their public sector counterparts. Only a hunch. They’re loving what they do, they’re good at it, and have a fair degree of autonomy. Pretty much in line with Daniel Pink’s essentials of motivation, that he wrote about in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. And yes, maybe they have flexibility about when and where they work too.

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