Absenteeism has a detrimental impact on workplace productivity and morale. Key to addressing this is ensuring employees are healthy

According to the financial service provider, Sanlam, on average around 15 percent of staff in the South African retail sector phone in sick daily; however, only one in three are actually ill. Absenteeism costs the economy around R16 billion annually. Even before workers are absent, they are distracted and unproductive in the workplace (referred to as presenteeism), which costs businesses close to R89 billion each year.

There are numerous causes for absenteeism and presenteeism including low morale, lack of motivation, stress, boredom, bullying, health or personal reasons, such as caring for children and the elderly. Most of these causes can be prevented or minimised with some investment from the business.

Health reasons

While it is impossible to completely prevent illness, there are precautions that can assist in reducing absenteeism due to illness. Companies can start by promoting a healthy lifestyle among employees through awareness programmes and service offerings. They can also encourage employees to take frequent breaks, to stretch and snack on healthy foods.

Employers can ensure a safe physical work environment by providing the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), highlighting potential hazards with signage and investing in ergonomics to prevent injuries caused by long-term exposure to uncomfortable postures, for example prolonged standing.

A lack of finance can be a barrier to accessing quality healthcare – particularly for low-income employees. Companies can consider contributing to their medical aid, providing health screenings and free flu vaccinations at the place of work. It is important to understand the health risks facing employees as each industry has its own challenges.

Martin Neethling, head of health insurance and distribution at Sanlam, notes: “It’s about understanding the reasons behind absenteeism. That means speaking to the team in a non-confrontational way to get to grips with the challenges. Some things are obvious, such as offering health screenings; while others are less so, such as offering access to an HIV/Aids programme that includes medication, counselling and pathology.”

Some companies have taken it a step further by providing additional “perks” such as yoga and meditation classes at the office or subsidising gym memberships. The former can also assist with some of the psychological causes to absenteeism and presenteeism.


Psychological reasons

One of the most common problems facing the modern workplace is burnout – mental exhaustion caused by feeling overworked, with stress being a key contributor. Stress has a detrimental impact on physical health. It can cause a lack of sleep, a compromised immune system and mental health problems.

Stress can also cause anxiety, decrease morale and job satisfaction, and even lead to depression in severe cases. Employees should be equipped with the skills to manage their stress and be provided with safe spaces to voice their concerns. Neethling advises businesses to use online tools to measure employee satisfaction and look for signs of impending burnout.

“That’s when early interventions can really be effective to prevent complete mental exhaustion. With financial stress being so ubiquitous, it is also imperative for employers to see where they can alleviate some of this anxiety by providing access to healthcare,” he adds.

Occupational health and safety officers should also be cognisant of potential bullying in the workplace, which can increase stress among employees. There should be clear rules and policies in place to prevent and address bullying – including abusive language, discrimination or simply inappropriate behaviour.

Personal reasons

An employee who is the main caregiver to a parent or child might also be absent more frequently to see to duties at home. While there is legislation in South Africa that addresses family responsibility leave, the allocated days might be insufficient – especially when a family member is suffering from a severe illness.

Companies can introduce flexible working hours or remote working to assist employees to better balance their work and home responsibilities. This can either be for a limited period of time, or a permanent company policy.

In addition to helping employees balance work and personal life, flexible hours and remote work can also improve mental health, as employees avoid rush-hour traffic or the need to commute. They can schedule work around their preferred work hours, and employees who work remotely can work in their preferred environment, whether it be in a noisy café or quiet room.

Prioritising employee well-being ensures that companies have healthy productive staff and can boost morale and job satisfaction, as employees feel the company values their mental and physical health.

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