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[‘Sickies’ epidemic a major threat to the economy ]

With a quarter of the South African workforce taking their full allowance of sick leave, economists warn that absenteeism, a major drain on productivity, is a factor in our decline to 53rd out of 148 countries in the Global Competitive Rankings. Mitigation of organisational health risk programmes need to identify the factors behind this rise in absenteeism to reverse the trend.

Adcorp economist Loane Sharp announced some disturbing news in September – on any given day, 3.7% of South African workers are absent on sick leave. “Between 2009 and 2012,” Sharp said, “one-quarter of all workers took the maximum statutory allowance for sick leave – 30 days in a three-year cycle.” 3.7% of the workforce on sick leave at any given time translates to one day of sick leave, per employee, per month. In effect, employers are paying for 20 days’ work and receiving 19. In 2001, the figure was just 0.7% – an increase of 500% in little more than a decade, despite the declining rate of HIV infection.

It had long been thought that HIV/Aids would prove a greater threat to productivity than labour unrest or any other factor, but aggressive intervention and education has been effective in HIV/Aids management. Through treatment, diet and exercise regimens, many workers with HIV remain productive employees. “HIV has not had the impact on the EAP that was originally anticipated,” says Chantal Du Chenne, a Gauteng strategist in organisational health-risk management. “Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – or the chronic diseases of lifestyle, including mental illness – are now one of the biggest threats to 21st-Century workforces.”

Is the workforce really getting sicker? And if so, why?
A five-fold increase in sick leave suggests that some employees are now choosing to take a sick day when suffering minor ailments, whereas in the past they would have felt able to work, or that others are “taking a sickie” once a month, whether truly ill or not, simply because they are legally entitled to.

Humanity Search and Select, CEO of specialist executive search firm Humanity Search and Select (HSS), believes the situation is more complex. “Whatever the proximal reasons for the rise in absenteeism, one underlying factor affects many of them: stress – whether it’s in their personal environment, or at work,” she says. “Since the economic contraction, many people are also in a lot more debt, and that’s another source of stress. Stress can make you physically ill, or trigger mental illnesses like depression, so you’ll find employees taking a sick day just to avoid a stressed environment.”

Employee wellness programmes must address NCDs
The link between effective workplace wellness programmes and productivity is not news to HR professionals. A number of large corporations now have mental health professionals on retainer, so that employees with personal, financial or workplace stress can receive confidential counselling. The modern HR department actively seeks to keep employees fit and healthy physically, mentally and financially. “HIV and TB are now seen as the ears on the hippo,” says Du Chenne, “while NCDs are seen as the hippo’s body – or an impending tsunami. Almost 1 000 South Africans die per day from NCDs, with almost 50% part of the EAP. If left unmitigated, NCDs have the potential to significantly impact the global economy.”

Barrick believes one major source of workplace stress, in particular, should receive more attention. “A huge cause of job-related stress is being in the wrong job,” she says, “a problem that often manifests in something called ‘presenteeism’ rather than absenteeism. This is when employees show up for work, but they’re not engaged or motivated, and seldom get involved in cross-functional projects.” Presenteeism also manifests when employees come to work despite illness, injury or anxiety, as a result of which their productivity drops. Although at work, they are not emotionally or consciously engaged with the company – and with no passion for their jobs, they’re not alive to innovation, or they miss opportunities to improve the business and execute fully on their own mandates.

Ensuring appropriate placement helps
“It’s easy to measure absenteeism and take the corrective action,” says Barrick, “but it’s difficult to measure and address presenteeism – because it manifests itself in low performance levels of work and productivity, but it’s not complete work avoidance, so it often flies under the radar. We need to get to the root cause of NCDs – and I’ve found that often the stress that may be a cause of presenteeism is because someone is simply in the wrong job and potentially the wrong organisation– for example, a creative engineer who has been placed in a linear job; it’s just not the right fit. People seldom leave jobs as a result of a lack of functional competence – the leave because of behavioural competence mismatches – that’s why Humanity has developed a set of unique, but now tried-and-tested tools to place the right individual – with the right archetypes, levels of EQ and CQ to match the job and the company – in the right positions. When people love their jobs, you see an immediate drop in absenteeism.”

“The easy place to start is with new appointments,” she continues. “In addition, we are now working with businesses, evaluating whole sections of their organisations, to see if they can improve productivity and employee happiness by reorganising and placing people into the type of jobs that suit their profiles better – the creative engineer in a creative job and the technical engineer in a technical job, for instance.”

Whatever the approach, both absenteeism and presenteeism present a growing challenge that needs to be tackled. A 5% increase in productivity can be the difference between success and failure. “In one blue-chip company, for example, direct costs of sickness absence have been reduced by some R20-million over a five-year period,” says Du Chenne, “as a result of sustainable employee engagement and a world-class workplace wellness programme.” It is in a company’s best interests, financially and socially, to have these programmes in place and to build teams of individuals whose physical and emotional health allow them to operate with optimal productivity and efficiency.