Absence management data misses the OHS mark

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Managing workplace absenteeism often ignores the OHS issues that are integral to the issue.

4926AbsenceSRWEB2 coverOn 20 July 2009 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development released its findings on the issue in its annual Absence Management Survey.

The media statement identifies the reasons for short- and long-term absences.

  • “The main causes of short-term absence are minor illnesses such as colds and flu, stress and musculoskeletal conditions
  • The main causes of long-term absence are acute medical conditions, stress and mental health conditions and musculoskeletal conditions and back pain.”

However, the media statement identifies no measures to counter these workplace hazards, preferring to focus on ancillary factors such as job security.

Willmott focuses on a comparison between absenteeism in the public and private sectors.  The difference is statistically interesting, perhaps, but does not address the causes of absenteeism.

Willmot also illustrates the dominant HR position on absenteeism.

“Effective absence management involves finding a balance between providing support to help employees with health problems stay in and return to work and taking consistent and firm action against employees that try and take advantage of organisations’ occupational sick pay schemes.”

This manages the effect of the problem but not the problem itself which CIPD’s own research has identified as musculoskeletal conditions, stress, mental health and, to a lesser extent, colds and flu.

The comments by the Senior Public Policy Adviser for the CIPD, BenWillmott, are a good example of how some human resources or management organisations miss the health and safety element.

The CIPD does acknowledge the importance of workplace health and safety as illustrated by its reply to the Health & Safety Executive’s draft strategy.  It also says in the Absence Management Survey that, in the return-to-work context:

“The involvement of occupational health professionals is identified as the most effective approach for managing long-term absence…”

However even though it sees itself as the “professional and accreditation body for the UK HR profession [which represents] over 130,000 HR professionals at every level of business and in every sector”, it hesitates to take a leadership role in health and safety.  It’s a pity because applying the apparent professionalism of the Institute and its membership strength to OHS could achieve great social and business efficiencies.

For those wanting to look at comparison data, CIPD makes available its previous surveys for download.

Kevin Jones

Presenteeism and swine flu

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Craig Donaldson interviewed Joydeep Hor, managing partner of Australian law firm Harmers on employment issues related to the swine flu outbreak.  Joydeep rightly points out that HR and OHS processes should not differentiate between swine flu and other workplace illnesses.  Hor briefly discusses the employers duty of care and how to question one’s traditional approaches to the “sniffles” at work.

Of course there is also the much under-enforced obligation of the employee not to put their work colleagues at risk – the major argument against presenteeism.

Kevin Jones

Swine Flu lessons – presenteeism is real

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There is some debate today about whether Swine Flu (in deference to the request from some pig farmers, now renamed “the Mexican Flu outbreak of 2009”) has peaked.  Colleagues in Asia over the weekend told SafetyAtWorkBlog that in most circles, the Mexican Flu outbreak has not generated the same level of interest, or concern, as elsewhere.  Perhaps the media studies academics can contribute to a redefinition of “global pandemic” as any disease outbreak that occurs in a country next to the United States. (Beware the Canadian Beaver Flu)

But flippancy aside, this dry-run at an influenza pandemic has many benefits and one particularly useful benefit will be a change in attitude to presenteeism in workplaces.

As the Southern Hemisphere enters its flu season and the early round of flu vaccinations concludes, Australia and others will be a test case for any attitudinal change in workers towards bringing their flu-ridden bodies to work, or in workers objecting to the contagious hazards that the presenteeists (?) introduce.

It has always been a suitable HR and OHS process to send someone home who appears impaired or unfit-for-work.  In the past “essential” staff would continue to work for the sake of workload or productivity.  Over time the folly of such an attitude has become obvious and workplace safety advocates have had a major role in this change.  The increased absenteeism of, and the decreased productivity from, a team who have been infected by a single member is now an unacceptable health hazard and productivity threat.

This change has also been helped by the increasingly viable option in some industries for people to work from home.

The Mexican flu outbreak is likely to verify the reality of presenteeism, probably from colleagues demanding that control measures be taken on the unthinking infectious workmate.  Masks may be tolerated but in the tradition of the hierarchy of controls, elimination is always preferable to personal protective equipment.

In the 1980s taxation department and many other workplaces, telephone hygienists were employed to disinfect telephone handsets.  Modern handsets cannot be disassembled in the same way however, SafetyAtWorkBlog was reminded of this, at the time, peculiar hygiene practices when watching Mexicans disinfecting subways and public telephones.

In all things there must be balance, but the Mexican flu outbreak of 2009 will undoubtedly revise the way people touch things and others.  In relation to influenze this is a good thing.

Kevin Jones

Absence management survey results

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On January 8 2009, the Mercer’s 2008 Pan-European Health & Benefit Report was released.  It had some useful information about the causes of workplace absenteeism in Europe.  The information was compiled in 2008 so is as current as can be but also occurred in a  period of severe economic unrest.

As with all studies, the applicability to other nations and regions is up for debate but the data is a great starting point for discussion on managing these issues in workplaces.

According to the available report information

“Musculoskeletal conditions were identified by 78 percent of respondents as the cause of most long-term absences.  Thirty-one percent specifically referenced lower back pain and 47 percent other musculoskeletal conditions.  Stress and mental health issues (52 percent) and cancer conditions (20 percent) were also featured amongst the highest disability causes.”

By looking at policies and practices in the multi-jurisdictional structure of Europe, the demographic variations and management initiatives may be applicable elsewhere.

As Steve Clements of Mercer says

“Absence management remains haphazard at best.  Targeted absence management policies and procedures are by no means universally applied, and even the ability to quickly and accurately measure absence remains fairly poor.  Many employers offer a broad range of health-related benefits, but their presence is driven by recruitment and retention, and it appears there is only sporadic evidence of integration of these benefits within a broader employee health and wellness or absence management agenda.  At a time when cost is under the microscope, employee absence remains under-managed and presents a great opportunity for savings and improved productivity.”

Kevin Jones

“Pilgrim’s Plague” and workplace absenteeism

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 Last year, Sydney Australia hosted World Youth Day (WYD).  In some ways Australia had not seen such a large influx of people from so many countries for a single event before.  The Sydney Olympics had a high proportion of locals attending and the 1956 Melbourne Olympics never had the infrastructure to provide so many overseas visitors.

For several months after the 2008 World Youth Day, it was rumoured that the level of absenteeism in workplaces was very high.  At the time of WYD there were several reports of quarantined pilgrims and the risk to public health of the Sydney population was assessed. (Peter Curson, professor of population and security in the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney wrote a discussion piece on this)

There were reports of influenza and viral gastroenteritis amongst pilgrims who were required to be quarantined.

The Medical Journal of Australia has released a report into the impact of World Youth Day on the emergency departments of hospitals (MJA 2008; 189 (11/12): 630-632).  This study found minimal impact in this sector of the hospital care.

However, SafetyAtWorkBlog is not aware of any research having been done on the impact of  World Youth Day on workplace absenteeism.  The EMJA study correlates World Youth Day with hospital admissions but it would be useful to see a comparative study of workplace absenteeism in the weeks after WYD, during the incubation period of influenza in particular.

World Youth Day did seem to overlap with the existing flu season in Australia’s winter but those statistical peaks are well-established and it would be interesting to see if those peaks had increased just after World Youth Day.

If there were a correlation, cost estimates for hosting the event may need adjusting to include the reduced productivity due to the “pilgrim’s plague”.