Want to prevent absenteeism in your organisation? Knowledge is power

At the end of June 2020, there were 460,000 employees on long-term sick leave in Belgium. These figures have been rising every year with an increase of as much as 130% since 2000. Although it’s not always easy to calculate the cost of absenteeism, the consequences for your organisation are considerable. The more time or resources mobilised to replace a staff member, the higher the cost of absenteeism, and the greater the importance of preventive measures. We spoke to Cédric Velghe—researcher and managing partner of The VIGOR Unit, a spin-off of UGhent—about 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 a good understanding of what wellbeing means. According to Cédric Velghe, “Initially, the focus lay primarily on physical wellbeing, happiness and stress”. “Recent developments and the coronavirus crisis have been an important wake-up call in this respect. There is now a growing realisation that mental and social wellbeing in the broad sense are just as important. Examples of this are self-fulfilment and a sense of belonging to a community. I see many organisations that are still relatively unfamiliar with these other aspects of wellbeing”.

Cédric believes that we need to dig deep and look beyond the staff member’s work situation. “Your organisation’s level of wellbeing also requires looking into your staff’s personal life and lifestyle choices. Because general wellbeing is determined as much by personal circumstances—factors that employers rarely have any control over—as by work-related factors”.


Formal and recurring surveys

This is all good and well, but what does it mean in practice? How do you, as an organisation, keep your finger on the pulse? “It may sound a bit old-school, but I recommend quantitative studies in the form of a formal staff survey. This is still one of the most effective ways to gain insight into levels of wellbeing and risks to wellbeing at your company”, advises Cédric. “Be aware, though, that this shouldn’t be a one-off. It has to happen regularly. It’s only with recurring surveys that you can make meaningful comparisons, identify trends or get insight into the interrelation with other KPIs.”  


Primary and secondary prevention

These types of survey primarily serve to identify needs, both in terms of primary and secondary prevention.  “With the former, you will put a range of measures in place to keep your staff members from being exposed to wellbeing risks”, explains Cédric. “These will be things like ergonomic improvements and safety measures but 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.

“With secondary prevention, you help individual staff members  who are already showing signs of declining mental and physical health. They need a different, more personalised, approach. With advice on diet, exercise and mental hygiene, you can, for example, help them make positive lifestyle changes”, he says. In fact, on many occasions, we see that little effort has been made in terms of primary intervention. This is hardly surprising since it usually requires adjusting the work environment or job content. It’s much easier to just organise a course or event”.  


Are quantitative criteria enough?

Quantitative analysis is a good start, but according to Cédric, it can be complemented with qualitative analysis, to provide more context for many of the figures.  “Focus groups, for example, are an excellent initiative”, he says. “These are qualitative group interviews with a representative selection of staff members. They help identify underlying needs or issues and jointly define a range of pragmatic proposals. A lot of the time, the crucial part is for staff to feel involved”.
The data from the survey can also be compared and contrasted with other organisational data. For example, there might be a link with absenteeism figures but also employee turnover. That way, you can statistically test the potential causes of absenteeism or turnover. The next step is to develop the predictive models that can anticipate to what extent absenteeism may rise or fall in the coming months.


Turning data into action

Data is critically important. This is why The VIGOR Unit helped develop the My WellRi assessment for AG Health Partner. According to Cédric, these evidence-based tools are crucial to properly analyse wellbeing at an organisation. “The questions are developed in accordance with the statutory requirements for analysing psychosocial risks, but we can take things further and monitor all of the important factors, such as resilience or how employees spend their free time”, he says. “However, the real art is in taking appropriate action based on the figures from this kind of survey, because just generating figures is obviously not enough. It’s just as important to involve your staff in the results and draw up an action plan together to address any weaknesses. Otherwise they get the feeling that the survey was a waste of their time, and this can have a negative impact on your entire wellbeing policy and associated initiatives”.


Want to find out more about recurring surveys? Have a look at My WellRi for inspiration!

Have a more general interest in the causes, impact and cost of absenteeism? Then make sure you download our white paper Absenteeism in Belgium for more information.