After hearing reports in the media of record amounts of sick leave in Australia in 2022, we wanted to examine this further. This has impacted many of the businesses we work with and conversations around employee engagement, burn out and overwhelm seem to be the common thread.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), recently reported in a media release:
"Nationally, and in New South Wales and Victoria, the number of people who worked reduced hours because they were sick was around three times the pre-pandemic average for January. In other states and territories, it was twice as many people….
…The number of people working no hours at all in a week because they were sick was particularly high at more than four times the pre-pandemic average.”
The media release goes on to say that the January 2022 figures are also much higher than is normally expected in the summer months, increasing to 450,000 from 90,000 – 100,000, and higher than the winter months when sick leave usually peaks at around 140,000 - 170,000.
The increase to these figures is particularly troublesome for businesses, as most commonly large amounts of sick leave can lead to large amounts of resignations.
Why is this happening?
There are many reasons why this is happening, some are more obvious than others. For example, cases of the Omicron variant increased at the back end of 2021 and into early 2022 as reported by the ABS (read full article here).
For the other reasons, we may need to look deeper into our own organisations and the impact of the past two years on our employees and the future of work as we know it.
Throughout 2020 and 2021 the term ‘survival’ was one we heard frequently as many organisations fought to survive the pandemic by any means necessary. Although we saw this galvanise teams in a way that we had never seen before, it was never meant to be a sustainable way of working for the future.
At the time, employees and employers knew that they needed to pull in the extra hours and come together as a group to get through the pandemic, and the pay off was flexible/remote working and keeping a job.
Many employees are now left with the feeling that the ‘new normal’ will continue to be working longer hours and being on call 24/7.
There are also many other factors that could be at play here including the amount of negative news being reported each day. The war in Ukraine, the flooding in Australia, everywhere you look there is more negativity leaving people feeling overwhelmed and not necessarily being able to understand why.
Sick or just sick of work?
If we look more closely at our own organisations take on working from home, remote working and flexibility we can maybe see some clues as to why sick leave could be increasing. For some, work has now been so finely integrated with our personal lives that the lines have been blurred whilst we navigate this new era. Many employees are coming forward with feelings of burn out. The need to overcompensate whilst working remotely is also another common discussion point – answering every message immediately, sitting at their desk for long periods, working through their breaks. It begs the questions:
Is the new way of working in a more demanding package?
Are there processes in place to ensure employees are switching off when they need to?
How do we as employers support our employees throughout this transition of working style?
Another question that we must ask ourselves as leaders is how close are we to our people? Now that remote working is almost guaranteed in most white-collar industries, has it removed the ability to see our people as their true authentic selves?
Are we making the time and space to get deep with our teams on a personal level and do they feel they can be transparent about how they are feeling? Understanding that the world feels tough at the minute and allowing our people to be open with how it is affecting them will lead to authentic working relationships.
This is even more true for new employees. With the vast majority of the businesses we work with open to onboarding new employees remotely, we must think about how we introduce these new team members into the culture and values of the organisation.
What can we do as employers?
Look at how you are checking in with your employees.
The first thing we can do as leaders and managers is to have open and honest conversations with our teams. Making time for these conversations will allow you to see any issues before they become too big and allow you to overcome any obstacles together.
Are things predictable in your organisation?
A massive factor in employee engagement is predictability and the past two years has been anything but predictable! People need the certainty now more than ever. Do what you have promised and be transparent about the plan to get there.
Does your organisation offer well-being programs or Employee Assistant Programs?
If your company does offer these benefits, then regularly remind your employees. We often don’t realise what is available to us until we need it. If you do not have any benefits relating to well-being, there are plenty of for-purpose organisations out there that offer free professional guidance which may be appropriate for those that need more support.
How do you measure employee engagement?
What better time to take a temperature check on the engagement within your organisation. There are many ways to do this, but the most common ways include a few data points. You could send out an anonymous survey, set up a focus group, conduct 1:1 meetings, collate employee productivity and retention figures.
However you decide to measure, the trick is to be consistent, keep measuring at regular intervals and then communicate your findings back to the team.