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4 ways to limit winter sick leave

By Ian Cowley, managing director of

A worrying report by Canada Life has revealed a third of employees don't call in sick, no matter how ill, because they are scared of falling behind in their work.

Now, while it's important to keep sick leave to a minimum, it's also crucial that sick staff take the time to recuperate and don't risk passing on their germs to co-workers.

As employers, it makes business sense to promote health and wellbeing to prevent illness striking in the first instance. Then, secondly, if it does, doing all you can to prevent one person's cold affecting the entire workforce - because the effect on productivity can be huge. A whole team there in body, but not in spirit.

Here are some ideas ways to limit the damage winter colds can have on your business.

1. Promoting staff wellbeing

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2013, 131 million days were lost to staff illness. The top three reasons were neck and back pain (31 million days), minor illness such as coughs and colds (27 million days) and stress, anxiety and depression (15 million days). Neck and back pain, plus stress can be minimised at work. For example, with the right chairs and desks, you can prevent injury caused by bad posture and/or help staff manage existing conditions. Perks like free fruit, subsidised gym membership and the cycle to work scheme can help improve staff's approach to health and diet, which in turns help ward off colds. And when it comes to stress, creating a supportive environment in which you promote a healthy work-life balance can help reduce mental illness directly attributed to work. Prevention is always better than a cure.

2. Flu jabs

The flu is hugely debilitating but the risk of catching it can be reduced through inoculation. One of our suppliers pays for their entire workforce to have the jab at the start of each winter. It's administered on a voluntary basis but they experience a 90% take-up. The cost is a business expense but they believe it's worth the investment. They are a small business and struggle to maintain output if a key member of staff is taken out-of-action because of the flu.

3. Make it possible for people to work from home

Staff often drag themselves, and their germs, to work because they are conscientious. They know they have a workload to tackle and are so blinkered by responsibility they don't realise it's a false economy. Not only will it take them longer to recover and therefore regain efficiency but they are passing on their illness to colleagues.

Thanks to the wonderful world of technology, it should be possible for staff who are sick but want to work to log in from home. To make this possible, put in place a computer system that allows for remote access and provide laptops on loan if needed. Agree with sick staff a realistic jobs list (given they're under the weather) at the start of each day and ask them to keep in touch with updates on their work and health progress.

4. Total bed rest

I do believe, though, that the only way to get better quickly is to rest. I've learnt this the hard way. I previously soldiered on and as a result, performed under par for two weeks when two days in bed would have solved the problem.

As a manager, you can use your discretion. You know who your hardworking staff are and who will only call in if they are at death's door. And you also know the staff who take advantage of the sick pay clause in their contract.

In the case of the former, ask them to handover any urgent matters that need handling and insist they switch on their out of office. Advise their teams that they are out of contact and let them rest properly.

In the instance of the latter, I'd suggest the working from home option and ask them to call, rather than email/text, each morning before 9am if their illness will keep them out of the office for another day.

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