Last year, workplace absenteeism cost the New Zealand economy an estimated $1.79bn, representing a rise of almost 18.5 per cent since 2016, according to the latest Southern Cross Health Society and Business New Zealand sponsored Workplace Wellness Survey.

The fourth iteration of the biennial survey was conducted between March and June on a sampling of over 121,000 employees (6.21 per cent of the workforce, responding to questions on their employment during the 2018 calendar year.

PrintNZ general manager Ruth Cobb says the survey’s data is in line with anecdotal evidence found within the printing industry.

She says, “Absenteeism has a huge effect on the bottom line of a business, particularly in the current climate where businesses don’t carry additional covering staff and often, productivity is noticeably affected.”

“While we don’t endorse employees coming to work when they are genuinely sick, it is the habitual sick leave takers that contribute to these growing figures and put cost pressures on the business.”

Absence rates

According to the survey, the average rate of absence in 2018 was 4.7 days per employee, compared to 4.4 days in 2016, 4.7 days in 2014 and 4.5 days in 2012.

Absence remained higher among manual employees in large enterprises, while smaller enterprises with non-manual workers experienced the lowest level of absence.

The difference in the average number of days off between manual and non-manual workers was 0.8.

Cobb observes, “While those numbers look reasonable at first glance, when the average number of days lost is projected across the New Zealand workforce as a whole, 2018 saw 7.4 million working days lost due to absence. This is greater than in previous years that typically recorded 6.1-6.7 million working days lost.”

Average absence levels were consistently higher for public sector workers who, on average, were away 1.5 to 2 days more than private sector workers.

Manual workers in large enterprises had the highest average amount of absence per year (5.7 days) and non-manual workers in enterprises with fewer than 50 employees had the lowest average level of absence (4.2 days).

The report observes that employees in smaller enterprises typically have better awareness of how their absence might adversely affect both their work colleagues and the business as a whole. It notes efforts to reduce absence levels for manual workers in New Zealand’s larger enterprises would go some way to bringing overall absence levels down. Cobb adds, “These higher numbers for manual labour have a direct relevance to manufacturing industries such as print and we must work together to look at causation and find ways to reduce these figures without reducing the overall health and wellness of the employees.”

Costs, drivers and factors

The report states that a typical employee’s absence continued to cost their employer $600 to $1000 a year, with that figure closer to the $1000 mark in recent years, and the direct costs of absence amounted to $1.79bn across the economy in 2018.

Illness (non-work related) was the most common cause of absence, followed by caring for an unwell family member or dependent and injury (non-work-related).

Mental wellbeing and stress was added as a new category this year and ranked fifth overall, while caring for a family member or other dependent due to breakdown in support arrangements rose to fourth place from seventh in 2016 and second to last in 2014. Non-manual occupations showed higher absences for illness and caring for others than manual occupations.

The proportion of staff that were more likely to turn up to work despite being sick was at its lowest point, at about 35 per cent in 2018 compared with the survey’s highest result of 49 per cent in 2012.

The culture of businesses encouraging employees to stay at home when unwell was evident throughout all sizes of business, although stronger for larger enterprises, and an improvement on 2016.

Cobb reckons that this progression illustrates growing appreciation of the negative effect remaining at work can have on the health of employees while also serving to minimise the potential spread of any contagious diseases.

She says, “The current measles epidemic in particular has seen both staff and businesses become more aware of the impact of allowing sick people to come to work and this thinking should carry forward regardless.”

While mainly minor illnesses continued to present as the most prevalent causes of absence, the report observes an increased proportion of absence due to both work and non-work related anxiety or stress or depression. This was not thought to mean such illnesses were more prevalent than in 2016, but instead that organisations were likely acknowledging such issues and sending a signal to staff that those were legitimate causes of absence.

A significant drop was seen in the numbers of injuries causing absence (from 22 per cent in 2016 to just 7.1 per cent in 2018), marking a consistent trend in this regard over the years, particularly for manual workers.

Cobb notes, “I would suggest that some of the reduction in injury levels will directly relate to the increased profile of health and safety since the introduction of Health and Safety at Work Act in 2016 and the much higher engagement levels required at all levels of a business.

“We have seen businesses of all sizes much more engaged in this process and employees are benefitting from this both on and off the job.”

All businesses by size said the wellness of staff continued to play a sizeable role in the productivity of the enterprise.

Cobb adds, “Breaks are mandated by legislation and this can also impact outcomes.”

As an overview, the survey notes positive moves in a number of areas relating to costs, drivers and factors associated with absence. Whereas in previous years there had been a degree of disconnect between what was being said and what the data reflected, the 2018 results indicated greater consistency in this regard, with employers recognising the importance of sending the right signal to staff about legitimate absences and breaks, it comments.

On the one hand, the report observes that a broader recognition of the main drivers of absence, alongside a clear signal to stay home if unwell, should invariably lead to absence rates increasing to a certain degree. However, it also comments that employers might consider that a lift in absence rates is an acceptable price to pay for overall happier, healthier and more productive staff. Cobb continues, “From an employer’s perspective, there is obviously cost involved in having staff away from work.

“But if staff members are legitimately unwell, then it is much better that they stay away from the workplace and allow themselves time to recoup, rather than courageously battling on, but no doubt doing so less productively and potentially contagiously.”

Stress and mental health

Overall, stress and anxiety levels for all enterprises remained more on the moderate than high side. General workload continued as the biggest contributor for businesses of all sizes in this regard, while relationships at work was also a key factor for smaller firms.

Relationships outside work featured as a key element of non-work related stress, although the range of causes was more evident for those with fewer than 50 staff.

Larger businesses were more likely to have practices in place to identify the mental wellbeing of staff, particularly when more formal processes could be employed across a large number,

Employee assistance programmes dominated the approach to supporting the mental wellbeing of staff, while flexible working arrangements remained a key option for smaller businesses.

Rising overall stress levels are an obstacle towards properly addressing stress, anxiety and fatigue in the workplace, comments the report. Although not suggesting all stress levels should be close to zero or be considered inherently bad, it urges stakeholders to be mindful of what such ongoing increase might mean long-term.

It recommends stakeholders examine the causes of both work and non-work related stress and that proactive steps be taken to bring overall stress levels down, with workload and change at work being highlighted as key areas of focus.

Although acknowledging businesses could only do so much regarding causes of non-work-related stress, it states that advancing even simple initiatives around personal health and ways to address financial concerns could help mitigate ongoing rises in stress.

While also noting smaller businesses would never be able to provide the array of options that larger businesses could, the report nonetheless highlights the benefit of at least having something in place in this area. It emphasises this should be a priority focus, given the high proportion of smaller businesses that currently have no plan to identify mental wellbeing and stress levels.

To sum up, the survey’s key findings include:

  • In 2018 New Zealand lost 7.4 million working days and $1.79bn due to absence (up from 6.6 million/$1.51bn in 2016).
  • 47.5 per cent of businesses offer five paid sick days per year, 21.2 per cent offer more than five.
  • On average, businesses spend $1500 per staff member annually on benefits to improve their wellbeing.
  • Stress has risen by 23.5 per cent across businesses in the past two years.
  • 35 per cent of Kiwis turn up for work despite being sick (down from 46 per cent in 2017).

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