Want to prevent absenteeism in your organisation? Knowledge is power!
In the summer of last year, close to half a million employees in Belgium were off on long-term sick leave. These figures have been rising every year, with an increase of as much as 130% since 2000. Due to labour shortages, replacing absent employees requires even more resources, which pushes up the cost of absenteeism and makes prevention all the more important. We recently caught up with Cédric Velghe, Researcher and Managing Partner of UGhent spinoff The VIGOR Unit, and Eva Deschans, Product & Partnership Director at Health Partner, who shared their insights on absenteeism, the role of prevention and the importance of keeping one’s finger on the pulse.
Taking a holistic view of health is crucial
Tackling absenteeism starts with good understanding of what wellbeing means. "Initially, the focus was mainly on physical wellbeing and employee satisfaction," explained Cédric Velghe. “Recent developments and the coronavirus crisis have been a major wake-up call in this respect. We finally see a growing awareness that mental and social wellbeing - in the broadest sense of the terms - are just as important if not more so. Examples of this are self-development and a sense of belonging. But based on my observations, many companies are still too unfamiliar with these other facets of wellbeing."
Eva Deschans then chimed in on the topic of hybrid work, which has seen exponential growth over the past few months. This trend has highlighted the increasingly blurred boundaries between work and home life. A critical issue that organisations should not lose sight of. "It's tempting to focus solely on the pure work side of things, but with the current hybrid work model, it has become painfully clear that other factors are at play" added Eva. "If you want to know where you stand in terms of employee wellbeing, then you should also take people’s lifestyle and personal circumstances into account. Keep in mind that what's happening in someone’s personal life also heavily influences their sense wellbeing... and these things are often out of the employer's control. That being said, taking a holistic view is crucial."
"It's tempting to focus solely on the pure work side of things, but with the current hybrid work model, it has become painfully clear that other factors are at play"
Formal and recurring surveys
This sounds very logical in theory, but how do you put it into practice as an organisation? How do you track and monitor the wellbeing of your employees? "While it might sound old-fashioned in the age of technology, I still recommend quantitative surveys," explained Cédric. "We know that formal employee surveys work. After all, it's one of the most time-tested methods, despite its obvious limitations, to see where you stand in terms of wellbeing and what the associated risks are at your company."
"But let's not forget this important disclaimer: a survey like this is of little value if it's a one-off," added Eva. "It's best to repeat such surveys at regular intervals rather than doing them once in a blue moon as a perfunctory task to tick off your to-do list. Only then will you be in a position to make relevant comparisons, identify trends or even connect the dots with other KPIs that are matter at your organisation."
Primary and secondary prevention
These kinds of surveys mainly help organisations identify primary and secondary needs. But what's the difference? "To meet primary needs, you'll have to put a set of initiatives in place to protect your employees from wellbeing risks," Cédric clarified. “For example, efforts to improve ergonomics and safety measures but of course also strategies to prevent mental strain or emotional issues.” Regular feedback, more autonomy, clear goals and sufficient training are, according to Cédric, good examples of this. Nevertheless, Cédric has observed that little effort is put into addressing primary needs. "This is actually not all that surprising, since it requires adjustments in our approach to work and in our organisational processes." Setting up a training course or an event is much easier," he explained.
"The purpose of secondary prevention is to help employees who are already showing certain symptoms at an individual level," added Cédric. "These employees require a separate and more personal approach. With advice on nutrition, physical fitness and mental health, you can help them make healthy work and lifestyle choices. In this regard, it also makes sense for employees to receive individually-tailored feedback after completing a survey. We find that this gives them extra motivation to fill out their employer's questionnaires, because they know they'll get something concrete in return."
"With advice on nutrition, physical fitness and mental health, you can help them make healthy work and lifestyle choices."
Are quantitative criteria enough?
Quantitative surveys are a good start, but according to Eva it's even better to add a qualitative component to the mix. This can add certain nuances to your hard data. “Focus groups, for example, are an excellent way to add colour to your quantitative analysis,” she pointed out. “These are qualitative group discussions with a representative sample of employees. You can use them to take a closer look at certain results, and then conduct additional research if necessary. As two heads are better than one, you generally end up with lots of practical suggestions. Experience has shown us that employees are often very open and come up with a lot of ideas themselves. Involving them in the reflection stage is already a step in the right direction.”
The survey results can also be compared and contrasted with other data at the organisation. For example, there might be a connection with absenteeism figures but also employee turnover. This way, you can statistically test the potential causes of absenteeism or turnover.
“The next step is to create predictive models that estimate how absenteeism will evolve in the coming months," Cédric concluded.
Turning data into action
Data-driven decision-making is of immeasurable importance. "It's also a fundamental part of our philosophy," added Eva. "Our My WellRi - a science-based quantitative assessment you can use to measure employee wellbeing at work and at home - is an excellent example. In designing this holistic wellbeing audit, we worked closely with The VIGOR Unit. We both firmly believe in the power of such evidence-based tools to get an accurate view of wellbeing in the workplace. The questions have been drawn up according to the statutory requirements for assessing psychosocial risk. But we have taken things a step further and have included all key factors in our assessment. For example, resilience and how employees spend their time outside of work. Afterwards, it's all about using the data from the surveys to take meaningful action. In this sense, recurrent assessments are just the beginning. Equally important: be sure to involve your staff in the results and draw up an action plan together. Otherwise, they'll feel like the survey was a waste of their time. And that, of course, can have a negative effect on the whole wellbeing policy and future initiatives."
Want to find out more about quantitative and qualitative assessments to identify the needs of your employees? Go to the audit & strategy page.