How does sickness absence affect small businesses?


Recent calls for women to be allowed paid time off during their period drew a mix response. However, in early March, Coexist did just that. It now allows its 24 female employees (it also has seven male employees) to take paid time off during their periods if they’re in pain.

Coexist manages Hamilton House, an arts and community venue in Bristol. Its managing director, Bex Baxter, who herself suffers severe stomach cramps each month, said: “I’ve seen women at work who are bent over double because of [period] pain. Despite this, they feel they cannot go home because they do not class themselves as unwell. This is unfair.”

Menstrual leave

“At Coexist we’re very understanding. If someone’s in pain – no matter what kind – they’re encouraged to go home.” Baxter added: “There’s a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive. Actually, it’s about synchronising work with the body’s natural cycles.”

As reported by The Guardian: “Menstrual leave has been a legal right for Japanese women since 1947, but fear of social stigma means many will not take it.” Nike is one corporate giant that offers menstrual leave, after introducing it worldwide in 2007, but few others do.

As reported by the Telegraph, one Harley Street professor of obstetrics and gynaecology believes paid menstrual leave would “boost female motivation and productivity.” But journalist Claire Cohen hit back by writing: “Periods are rotten. But they are a natural process. The answer is not to force half the population to hide away at home. We don’t need ‘thoughtful’ male bosses to patronise us into resting up. What we need is to grit our teeth, like we’ve always done, pop a paracetamol and to be allowed to get on with our jobs.”

UK cost of sickness

Many business owners will agree. Sickness absence remains a big and expensive challenge. In 2013, accountants PwC estimated that sickness absence cost UK businesses some £28.8bn a year (it fell to £23bn in 2014). Its research found that UK workers have an average of 9.1 days off from their jobs each year because of sickness – almost double the US tally (4.9 days), higher than Western Europe (7.3 days) – and four times more than employees in Asia Pacific (2.2 days).

As well as increasing costs, staff absence can mean customers get let down, which harms profitability. Staff absence usually has a knock-on effect on other team members’ workloads, and this can damage their morale, motivation and goodwill. Team spirit and togetherness can also suffer if inconvenienced employees suspect their absent colleagues might be taking a ‘sickie’. According to PwC, ‘sickies’ (a.k.a unauthorised absences) costs UK employers £9bn a year.

Reasons for staff absence

The PwC survey of 2,000 adults found that almost a third had called into work ill because they had a hangover, while 26 per cent were simply bored with their job. More than a quarter were going to a job interview, while 11 per cent wanted to enjoy the good weather and eight per cent wanted time off to go to a sporting event!

Much illness is genuine, of course. According to a 2014/15 Labour Force Survey, 9.5m working days were lost in the UK because of “work-related musculoskeletal disorders”, while 9.9m working days were lost as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Stress alone accounted for 35 per cent of all work related ill-health cases and 43% of all working days lost. Thankfully, employers and employees can work in partnership to help to reduce both.

  • The Heath & Safety Executive offers advice to employers on how to better manage sickness absence and employees’ return to work. Acas also provides guidance on managing staff absence.

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