Wellbeing & Health

Sickness Absence in Winter – Is There More To It?

3 Mins read

Only 17% of British workers claim to love their job.

Not only is this a startling revelation considering how much time we spend at work – roughly 3,515 days over a lifetime, but also explains why employees would be more inclined to call in sick. Sickness absence rates in the workplace more than double in winter than summer; the roads are icier; the months feel longer; the days are colder and employees are more likely to feel down in the dumps. Another likely contributing factor is that there is less of an explanation required for sickness absence during the colder months. It is common for employees to fall victim to a range of nasty viruses and infections over winter; however, these illnesses are also good excuses to take much-needed duvet days. 

Duvet Days: Why Employees Need Them

Almost all employees have experienced the “duvet day” feeling. It is when our alarm goes off, and we cannot muster the strength to get up. We haven’t slept well; we can barely open our eyes, and all we want in the world is to stay in bed so that we can go back to sleep. We should listen to what our bodies are telling us – they are crying out for rest to prevent burnout. 

The positive is that some employees do listen to their bodies; they call their employer and say that they are unwell so that they don’t have to go into work. Employees might not even be showing signs of physical illness to take a duvet day; they simply need to take a day away from their occupational responsibilities. It might not even be to recover from burnout, either. It could be mental health oriented, or because they need a short break from work to preserve their wellbeing. The negative is that employees are forced to lie to their employer in order to receive a duvet day. In some workplaces, duvet days have been implemented into company policies and holiday allowances to enable employees to take a day off even when they aren’t sick and haven’t given any notice in advance, but they are still not normalised, accepted, or known about enough.

Duvet days are not an excuse to be lazy, as some employers might assume. Instead, they aim to help employees preserve their mental health and a sense of wellbeing. Winter makes employees vulnerable to conditions like seasonal affective disorder; a well-defined clinical diagnosis that has been directly linked to the shortening of daylight hours. The percentage of mental health absences has been taking a steady climb since 2017, and it is thought that the duvet day policy reduces the number of sick days taken overall. This is because duvet days make employees feel well-treated, and able to be honest with their employer when they need a day to rest and recuperate. As a result, this decreases the chance of burnout and work-related stress, alongside nurturing a new level of trust between employers and employees. 

Flexible Working: What It Has Taught Us

If there is one positive to come from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that it has made us re-evaluate the ways in which we work. Just as duvet days have gained popularity in progressive workplaces, so have flexible and hybrid working models. It is in no way a coincidence that sickness absence hit a record low of 1.8% in 2020 – a time when almost half (46.6%) of the UK population were working from home. 

To put this into further perspective, new research has demonstrated that more than three-quarters (78%) of people still working from home this year reported an improved work-life balance. Just over half (52%) revealed that it was quicker to complete work, and almost half (47%) reported improved wellbeing. One survey even discovered that 65% of respondents said they are less likely to take sick leave when working remotely. 

Destigmatising Sick Days

Employers prepare for an influx in sick days over winter but even so, their attitudes towards sickness absence have long been a subject of debate. Although it is understandably frustrating to have an incomplete workforce rather than a full one, employers must understand that employees are not robots. To be ill is human, but even so, most employees feel compelled to come to work even when they are unwell out of fear that they will be reprimanded by their employer. In a survey aimed for employees who felt unwell but didn’t take sick leave, it was discovered that 32% could not financially afford to take time off work, 25% were too busy at work to take time off, 21% didn’t want to let their colleagues down and 20% felt pressured to come in anyway. 

Despite all we have learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic, stigma is still attached to sickness absence. Employee presenteeism is still ubiquitous. Taking a day to recover from physical illness or burnout needs to be normalised – especially during the winter months – and the sooner it is, the closer we will be to creating a brighter workplace culture that is centralised on honesty and wellbeing. 

Further Reading

Lifestyle Benefits for Employees
Open Enrollment Checklist
Job Mapping Templates

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Consultant for Healthscreen UK
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