Home sick days – disruptive or productive?

Is it a good idea to allow sick employees to work from home? Access Group’s Rob Gimes gives his thoughts on recording and analysing sick days and their effect.


When an employee needs to take time off work due to sickness it doesn’t only impact that one member of staff – it can have both minor and major repercussions for the whole company.

At the very least, a business must spend administration time reporting the sick day internally and making contact with relevant colleagues to advise them a person’s job won’t be covered that day. On the other end of the scale, one sick day can lead to urgent cover needing to be sourced, business changes being made or a deadline missed.

According to the latest statistics from the ONS, 131 million days were lost due to sickness absences in the UK during 2013 – that’s an average of 4.4 days for every worker. However, the ONS also reveals the number of sick days being taken in the UK has been falling year on year since the start of the last recession.

The widespread opinion on the reason for this is that employees are only too aware of the financial pressures on businesses today (and the job cuts that had to be made during the economic downturn). Therefore they are conscious of showing their dedication and value to the business.

In today’s mobile age, it has become easy for employees to work from home and many workers choose this option instead of taking a sick day. However, unexpected days working at home can still impact the productivity levels of an employee and therefore a business. This can go some way to explaining why, despite the UK working more hours than ever before, ONS figures show productivity is the lowest it has been since the Second World War.

Whether taking a day’s sick leave or unexpectedly working from home, plans still have to be changed, which can cause disruption and have time and financial cost implications – but how much? And how can businesses monitor such disruption without neglecting the well-being, or harming the productivity, of their workforces?

Measuring the cost of business disruption

Employee well-being is increasingly becoming a top priority for businesses today. Therefore, when a member of staff takes sick leave it is now protocol to report the illness, recording whether it is a recurring experience and if the employment or business environment has contributed to the sickness in any way.

For many businesses though, consideration is not given to what ‘business disruption’ can – or should – be recorded when an employee is unexpectedly absent from work. By failing to record and analyse such disruption, businesses risk allowing both time and financial losses to go unnoticed and unrecorded.

One of the most important disruptions to record is the impact on business plans – whether those plans are immediate or long-term. Collating data on any immediate changes to the working environment, the frequency at which amendments to plans have been made, as well as what changes have occurred and if any plans have been cancelled altogether, can provide valuable business information.

This data can enable businesses to put together a clear picture of the time and financial impact of such changes. This captured information can then provide an analysis of the disruption so appropriate measures can be found to negate the same loss from happening again and again, preventing even greater impact to the business in the long term.

Employee trends

The trend of duvet days, which originated in the US, has continued to grow in the UK since the early 2000s. Companies such as LendLease Europe announced this year that their employees can have one duvet day every quarter to help with their general well-being and other companies are following suit.

The UK still leads the way in taking more sick days than counterparts in Asia and the US according to a 2014 survey from Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). Survey respondents also stated that one in three workers admitting calling in sick when they weren’t. The majority of this time off was confined to just one day, which could beg the question how disruptive it actually is for businesses. However, the responses as to why employees took those days did highlight that their absence could be masking a bigger problem, with 26% of people stating that they used those days to attend other job interviews and another 26% taking the time because they were bored in their job. This obviously has further repercussions for businesses.

Maintaining employee well-being and productivity

It is essential that the analysis of the impact of staff sick leave is not done at the detriment of employee well-being.

In recent years there has been a growing trend of employees having a home sick day, rather than taking a day’s sick leave. This can provide considerable benefits to both the employee (preventing them from falling behind with their workload and avoiding a sick day on their personal record) and the business (business plans will have less disruption if there is still some level of appropriate cover).

Despite this, it is also the responsibility of the business to consider why an employee is opting to work from home rather than calling in ill. If the employee feels unwell but feels able to work from the more comfortable surroundings of their own home – both the employee and employer will benefit. However, if the large scale redundancies made by numerous businesses across the globe during the recent recession are causing employees to be afraid to take sick leave, organisations will be at risk of harming the long-term well-being and productivity of their staff – which in the end benefits nobody.

If an employee is too sick to work, allowing them to work from home rather than take proper rest could prolong their illness – and therefore their ability to work at their full potential.

It is also important to consider the productivity levels of staff opting to work from home. A committed and loyal workforce should always be trusted to work optimally wherever they are, but every individual is different and will naturally be more productive in different environments. Therefore for some members of staff working from home will reduce their productivity and so there will still be disruption to the business, which will have time and cost implications.

The role of technology

Two things are clear. Firstly, it has become essential for businesses to gain a full and accurate view of the real impact of employee absence, whether on sick leave or working from home. Secondly, organisations cannot allow the analysis of such disruption to be at the detriment of their workforce.

Employee sick forms are now part and parcel of business administration and work to the benefit of both staff and employer. Now commonly completed digitally – or at least loaded into an HR software system – the data is used to make sure the employee’s well-being is monitored, while also ensuring the business is protected by analysing commonalities in the absenteeism of individual members of staff.

There is no reason why business disruption caused by staff sickness cannot be recorded in the same way. However, if such an administration task is to be added to the everyday processes of an organisation, then it is essential that the business value of doing so is realised. This is where technology must play an essential part in the process.

Giving employees the ability to easily record when they are working from home will allow companies to record and monitor the disruption of these days. Companies are able to report on possible disruption, but it will also enable employees to see at a glance where their colleagues are working, for example working from home or working in a different office location to normal. This will help to provide valuable insights for a range of business reporting, such as HR and business strategy analysis.

By utilising technology, businesses will benefit from access to accurate data and efficient and instant analytics and insight to inform sound business decisions. If businesses fail to effectively use information collated on the disruption caused by employee sick leave, they will never truly understand the true impact of absenteeism and will therefore be leaving themselves open to continued time and financial losses, which could easily be negated.

Rob Gimes is human capital management product manager at Access Group


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