Everyone gets sick. It’s a fact of life and a reality of running a business. Although sickness absenteeism can be extremely costly and hugely inconvenient, a certain level of sickness is essential for a healthy business. The question is how much is too much?

In the UK we take an average of 6.5 sick days a year (XpertHR data), which costs employers over £16 billion. However, you can only understand what a reasonable sickness average looks like for your business if you record and measure who, why and for how long your employees are off work sick.

While in most cases employees call in sick for genuine reasons, you are always going to get those who take liberties, especially if they feel that they aren’t being watched. How you manage sickness absence will depend largely on your company culture, but its about finding sensible middle ground which respects that sickness is a natural part of everyday life, while also keeping an eye on things.

Some business owners try to incentivise people against taking sick days by offering them a bonus, which some businesses operate a culture where sickness absence is frowned upon or even chastised. This kind of approach only serves to put the long term health of employees in jeopardy as problems can build up with potentially catastrophic results.

This was the case at leisure retailer Sports Direct, where it was recently reported that 80 ambulances had been called to attend serious health conditions at its HQ during the last two years, amidst claims from the unions that employees have been too scared to take time off for fear of losing their jobs.

Sickness absence doesn’t always mean that an employee is ill. It can often be symptomatic of more deep-rooted problems, either within the business structure or within an employee’s private life. Therefore, measuring sickness can help businesses to bring these issues to the fore much sooner.

However, three basic attitudes are commonplace amongst SME owners when it comes to measuring sickness. Firstly, there are those who don’t measure and don’t think they have a problem with sickness absence. Then you have those who don’t measure but know that they have a problem and finally, you’ve got those that don’t measure, say they don’t have a problem, but they actually do.

Get the data flowing

You may have a hunch that you have an absence problem or you may be ignorant to the fact, but either way you can only be certain if you’re able to consult the data.

Measurement shouldn’t be viewed or approached as something Orwellian or negative. If something changes either in the home lives of your employees, then they may be taking sickness absence to help deal with it. In this situation any responsible employer will want to offer help and support, so by being able to consult that employee’s absence records will immediately tell them whether the absence is out of character or not.

Measurement is a long game. The longer you keep collecting it, the richer and more insightful it becomes. You ideally want to have a year’s worth of data to begin with, as it’s at this point that the trends start to become evident.

If you’ve not yet started on the measurement journey, then these are the three stages you should consider:

  1. Basic monitoring
Measurement starts with basic counting. Only when you start to record the frequency and reason why employees are sick, can you can begin to measure, analyse and understand what this absence means in the wider context.

When you introduce monitoring two things can happen. Firstly, you demonstrate to your employees that you care about their health and wellbeing but also, if you are seen to count then some of your problem cases will begin to fall away

There are a number of online platforms, some self-serve, which make the process of counting much easier, but any business can start record by simply using something like an Excel spreadsheet.

Just start now.

  1. Back to work interviews
Once you’re happy with basic monitoring then you might want to start introducing back to work interviews, with any employee returning to work from long-term sickness absence.

If an employee has been off work for anything over 28 days or four weeks, then you need to be giving them a back to work interview, focused on their health and wellbeing. These interviews help you get to the bottom of why an employee has been off work, as there may be other factors which have contributed to their absence.

During these interviews you can also put together a rehabilitation plan that will see that employee brought slowly back up to speed.

Its best that these meetings are conducted by someone other that the employees line manager, as there may be issues with the employees absence that may be compromised if they have to share them with their line manager.

Back to work interviews will also help to reduce then number of employees taking more than long periods of time off.

  1. Making the data work for you
The final stage is analysis. Once you’ve amassed a good body of data its time to start making the data work for you.

Sickness absence data can tell you a great deal about the health of your business and how it operates. Spikes in the data can act as an early warning system alerting you to any potential issues within a specific team or department, while knowing what an average rate of sickness is for your business is vital for understanding whether liberties are being taken.

At this point you may want to start recording sickness against the Bradford Factor,

a recognised and widely used system which calculates a score for each person’s sickness absence. The system works by assigning higher scores to any absence that has a greater disruption to your business, like frequently taking sickness absence on Fridays and Mondays. The Bradford Factor’s scoring system helps to make trends worth investigating much more evident and also works to deter employees from taking sickies.

Your employees are going to call in sick from time to time, while some are likely to take longer periods of time of work through illness. Only by recording and measuring your sickness absence data can you begin to make sense of whether your business is fighting fit, or whether employee absence is masking other problems.

If you don’t yet count your sickness absence data then it’s time to start. For the health of your employees and your business.

By Jonathan Richards, CEO,