Coached, Present and Accounted For

Absence to Presence

This article suggests that the problems of absenteeism in large organisations are best addressed in a proactive rather than reactive manner. Particularly employees in high stress, high-responsibility positions can, through a systematic process of performance coaching, be provided with emotional and psychological strategies to manage the stressors that often underpin absenteeism.

Along with helping reduce absenteeism rates, performance coaching improves the functioning of people when they are at work. In other words, performance coaching not only reduces absence but also increases “presence” (i.e. levels engagement in the tasks and roles being performed).

Absenteeism and “Ill healthcare”

“The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.”   Plato

In 2009 an article in the Guardian described a government-commissioned study which revealed that absenteeism due to sick leave had cost the NHS service £1.7 billion in just one year. The report said that just a 33% reduction in absenteeism would lead to an annual cost savings of over half a billion pounds.

It is 2011, two years after the study was released, and the NHS is facing unprecedented challenges, with structural and policy changes, and budget and staff cuts hovering like dark clouds over employee morale.

Considering the relationship between psychological/emotional distress and a compromised immune system, the stage is set for an ongoing cycle of stress related illnesses and increased staff absenteeism in the NHS.

Many organisations face this same challenge today. Attending to both the emotional and physical wellbeing of employees is increasingly a bottom-line issue.

The above report revealed that many NHS staff had pushed themselves to meet their work commitments even when they were feeling really unwell. This bears testimony to the levels of commitment and accountability of many healthcare workers who make tremendous sacrifices to provide quality care to patients.

However, of the 11000 NHS staff members that participated in the study, over 80% admitted that their ill health had affected the quality of care given to patients when they were at work.

Consider any organisation where customer care and service relationships are a primary and the same dynamic is at work. In short, a lower absenteeism rate may not necessarily result in higher quality services and performance.

Increasing productivity is far more complex than just getting people to be at work more. The cost of official sick leave is relatively easy to calculate and quantify, but the cost of stress and illness-compromised services may be far more significant and widespread than we realise.

Yes, we need to find ways of reducing absenteeism, but another important question may be, “How do we equip and support stressed employees when they are at work?” If proactive interventions are not considered, employees are faced with a perpetual cycle of stress-related absenteeism or poor performance and work dissatisfaction:

Do I keep going back to work where I’m feeling really tired and overwhelmed and can’t cope… and eventually get too sick to carry on? Or do I call in sick for a few days… only to then get back to work with even more pressure from all the backlog?

And what will really be different when I eventually go back to work?

I’ll be better for a while, but how long before I’m back to square one?

Employee-Workplace Interface

At the risk of stating the obvious, something happens in the interface between employees and their work environments/relationships that either promotes well-being and productivity or diminishes health and therefore effectiveness. On both sides of the “employee-workplace interface” changes need to occur before the problems of absenteeism and low productivity can be fully addressed.

Creating change in large, multi-level workplace environments (such as a national healthcare system) can be a daunting prospect, since there are complex structural, interpersonal and financial factors that influence what can and cannot happen.

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