Kiwi workers still soldiering on when sick

Tuesday , 1 August 2017 by Janine Kendall

More than 40 per cent of kiwis are still turning up to work sick, despite a continuing improvement in business culture that encourages unwell staff to stay home.

That’s one of the findings of the biennial Wellness in the Workplace Survey just released by Southern Cross Health Society and BusinessNZ.

It’s the third time the biennial survey, which canvassed 109 private and public sector businesses representing more than 93,000 employees (about five per cent of New Zealand’s workforce), has been carried out and Southern Cross Health Society CEO Nick Astwick says it’s now possible to see trends forming.

“Back in 2012 attendance of unwell staff sat at 49 per cent and that figure dropped to 35 per cent in 2014, but it’s proving a tough nut to crack and has now bounced back to 46 per cent.

“We can now reflect across all three surveys and see that at least four out of every ten sick employees consistently attends work rather than rest and recuperate at home.”

That’s despite the latest survey data showing enterprises believe they’re doing better at fostering a culture that encourages staff to stay home when sick.

“It begs the question - what is causing the disconnect between culture and reality? Is it that staff feel guilty for taking leave? Or that they feel they’ll fall too far behind if they take time out to get well?”

The survey also found that a third of staff waver between turning up or not and, as in prior surveys, it’s smaller businesses that are still more likely to have staff attend work when they should be at home.

“Intuitively, that makes sense,” Astwick says. “If you’re a small business with just a handful of staff, the absence of one person is likely to be felt much more keenly. So people probably soldier on to avoid impacting their colleagues and workload.”

Astwick says Southern Cross Health Society research shows smaller companies are also less likely to offer a staff health and wellbeing programme than larger businesses.

“We know from talking to our own corporate clients that less than half have a health and wellbeing programme and the proportion is smaller again for businesses with fewer than 100 staff. They simply struggle with having the time, human resources and knowledge to get started.”

Astwick says staff who are sick should feel supported to take leave and get well, but a health and wellness programme can help prevent illness occurring in the first place, as well as encouraging better engagement, reduced turnover and increased productivity among staff.

“People think wellness programmes need to be big, complicated and expensive. But you could start with something as simple as providing flu immunisations before winter or introducing a fruit box to the staffroom once a week,” Astwick says.

Recent Massey University research into Southern Cross Health Society’s own staff wellbeing programme showed the not-for-profit insurer saves an estimated $1072 per employee per year through reduced absenteeism and, conservatively, $268 per employee per year in productivity savings.

“Ninety-four per cent of our employees feel we care about their wellbeing and 87 per cent say participating in our wellness programme has had a positive impact on their health and wellbeing. That’s hugely valuable when you consider how the health of your staff impacts the health of your business.”

Later this month Southern Cross Health Society will launch its new BeingWell Hub to help businesses wanting to establish a workplace health and wellness programme.

Astwick says the digital hub allows businesses to work with Southern Cross to tailor a package to suit their needs and budget, ranging from free on-line starter kits through to bespoke coaching and expert seminars. An app that calculates a personal health score for each individual will follow later in the year.

“During our lifetimes most of us will spend about 90,000 hours at work, so it makes sense for employers to support the health and wellbeing of their staff while they’re on the job - it’s a win-win.”

In 2016 New Zealand lost around 6.6 million working days to absence and, on average, loses 6.1 million to 6.7 million days annually.

The financial cost of that level of absence was around $1.51 billion in 2016 and has sat at around $1.41 billion a year on average over the last five years.


Southern Cross Health Society-BusinessNZ Wellness in the Workplace Survey 2017

Other key survey findings and additional information

  • The average rate of absence per employee is 4.5-5 days.
  • A typical employee’s absence costs their employer $600-$1000 per year.
  • Non-work-related illness and injury remains the most widespread driver of employee absence, followed by caring for a family member of dependent due to illness or injury.
  • Minor illness remains the dominant cause of absence for personal reasons, with physical pain or injury, encouragingly, becoming a lesser cause.
  • New Zealand’s overall absence rate has typically remained below five days, but continues to be well above four.
  • Average days of absence for non-manual workers have continued to increase while the opposite has been the case for manual employees. Non-manual workers in enterprises with fewer than 50 staff have the lowest average level of absence.
  • Absence rates are still likely to be higher among manual workers operating in large enterprises.
  • Average absence levels are consistently higher for public sector workers who are, on average, away 2-2.5 days more than private sector staff.