It has been interesting to read the latest data published last week from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) which suggests a decrease in sickness absence in the NHS from September 2014 to September 2015. The data was supplied by Health Education England (where we have provided conflict resolution training and accredited mediation training), as well as from staff groups, regions and organisations.
The data made me reflect on the large number of workplace mediation cases that are referred to us in which one of the parties has been or currently is on sickness leave due to work-related stress. Sometimes a party has been signed off work for a week or two. In a recent case, the party had been off work for close to six months. And I will always remember the mediation case I mediated where the party had been off work for over two years.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report into “Sickness Absence in the Labour Market” (2014), cites that 131 million days were lost due to sickness absences in the UK in a year. This translates to 4.4 days of sickness days per worker per year. The report states that the main cause for lost working days was musculoskeletal conditions (e.g. back and neck pain), followed by coughs and colds and then stress, anxiety or depression.
In our workplace mediation practice, there is rarely a case where at least one if not both parties (or more parties in a team mediation) mentions that they are suffering from the symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression. We hear about the severe stress that employees take home with them, the many sleepless nights they endure, the anxiety they feel when they need to speak with or meet the person that they are in conflict with, and the feelings of depression that often result from the challenging workplace relationships that some employees experience.
When it comes to sickness absence, there are things that can be done about back and neck pain, coughs and colds, but they are not necessarily in the domain of HR. However, nipping issues in the bud so that they don’t escalate and create toxic work relationships, is. The message is like a mantra that we keep repeating to our clients – nip issues in the bud as quickly as you can, so that conflicts don’t escalate to a degree where someone has to take time off work due to stress-related illness. And nip them in the bud using processes such as mediation and other informal dispute resolution processes rather than trying to tackle them via formal process. If you follow this mantra, you are very likely to see a marked decrease in the number of days your employees need to take off work.