Belfast Telegraph

Businesses can reap financial benefits of a healthy workforce

By Dr Alan Black

For a single employee, taking one or two paid sick days a year is likely to have little or no impact on their personal finances. However, in the case of both large and small companies where multiple workers may be off at any one given time, absenteeism presents a series of financial pressures that can weigh heavily on a company's bottom line.

Research shows that Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of absenteeism in the UK, with 3.1% of work time per annum being lost to sick leave compared to the national average of 2.8% (XpertHR). To put it into perspective, this equates to 7.1 days per employee in Northern Ireland, which contributes to an overall cost of £16bn to UK businesses.

Setting the financial implications aside, employers may also experience a loss in productivity, staff morale and quality of goods and services when faced with high levels of absenteeism, as employees covering for absent colleagues are put under increased pressure coping with a greater workload and less resources. This risks perpetuating the vicious cycle of employees suffering from occupational burnout and work-related stress, which can exacerbate levels of absence even further.

With businesses already at the mercy of today's turbulent financial climate that has on occasions resulted in job losses, budget cuts and closures across both the private and public sectors, it remains paramount that employers protect and nourish their most prized asset, employees.

Not only is this a more economical and efficient approach for any responsible business, but more importantly the most ethical too.

For many organisations, having the right policies in place allows the opportunity to identify issues and offer support to each employee as a means of managing absence effectively and compassionately.

By rule of thumb, each policy should address key areas of concern such as physical health, mental health, work-home balance and environmental health to cover all bases fully and lawfully.

However if line managers suspect an employee is suffering from a health issue, it's crucial that they avoid counselling them or assuming a diagnosis unless of course the information has been volunteered by the individual themselves. Treating someone differently at work on the basis of an assumed medical disorder or disability is likely to be inappropriate and leaves the door open for potential litigation.

To help ensure cost-effective compliance with employment and data protection law, many organisations employ the professional services of an occupational health provider to deal with sensitive issues while delivering a duty of care owed to staff on behalf of the employer.

In addition to their moral responsibilities, employers also have a legal obligation to ensure that all employees are safeguarded from occupational risks that may pose a threat to their health under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

To identify such risks, an occupational health specialist will advise HR on reasonable workplace adjustments to assist the needs of an employee were appropriate.

When employees feel valued and supported, they recover from sickness more quickly and experience a greater sense of wellbeing and purpose both inside and outside the workplace.

Needless to say, healthier employees have higher levels of motivation, productivity and engagement, which reflects positively on a company's bottom line thanks to reduced overtime payments and the number of appointed temporary staff.

By working in collaboration with occupational health and implementing practices that will help to reduce absenteeism, identify occupational risks, and facilitate staff to remain in or return to work, businesses will soon reap the financial benefits of a healthier, happier workforce.

Dr Alan Black is the managing director of occupational health provider, Blackwell Associates Ltd

Belfast Telegraph