The working world is gathering speed and the balance of work and downtime is becoming less easy to achieve and less likely to be a focus of employees as they thrive on their career development and success rates. The results from the latest sick report from Breathe paints a picture of a conflicted workforce torn between the urge to be connected and the inevitable human need to switch off. Meanwhile, small business owners are unintentionally creating a culture where it is expected that employees are always available.
Small businesses are the powerhouse of the UK economy, employing 15.7 million people and accounting for 99.3% of all private sector businesses at the end of 2016. So what can small business owners do, if anything, to prevent this always on culture from manifesting and resulting in an absence epidemic as research findings predict?
We’re all trying to keep up
Wendy Read, Founder and Managing Director of HR revolution, an HR consultancy with the mission to revolutionise the way in which businesses work with HR, says that in her experience many business owners have an open attitude to absence. “A lot of business owners expect to be able to see if there is a problem and hope that their employees will let them know when they are feeling stressed or in need of down-time, but in reality many working environments are so fast-paced, highly-energised and driven to succeed that anyone not on the treadmill gets left out of the loop quickly.”
She goes on to say that, “a standard working week is no longer Monday to Friday it can be 24/7, we all have mobile devices that keep us in the loop whenever we request and a culture that means we want to be included and up to speed constantly updating our apps and email to see what’s going on. Downtime is often still ‘online’ so there is still no real separation angle. This does then tend to lead to a mentality where we are always on. If this is not managed properly it can lead to many more stress related absences and longer-term workforce management issues.”
Business owners want action
Wendy believes that it’s tough for business owners to change this mentality. ”They want action,” she says. “If someone is thriving on working long hours to deliver and over achieving, why should that be a bad thing? The employee wants to develop and build their skills; the business gets the input and ultimately the success rates rise. As a business owner myself I get it, I can really see why many of my peers will always ask, ‘What’s the issue?’”
However, the issue is that, according to Breathe’s sick report, not only do one in three business owners think it’s fair game to contact staff whilst they are on holiday, over half (51%) of business owners contacted staff whilst they were on sick leave. The source of their persistence is clear with 85% of business owners admitting that staff absences have an economic impact on their business. This is leading to more than half of employees (54%) not taking their full annual leave entitlement and feeling pressured to continue working despite being on paid leave, with 52% responding to work emails whilst on annual or sick leave.
Setting a good example
Spin the situation round and we see it really is truly a short-sighted vision for your workforce and not a positive example to set. Business owners don’t take holiday themselves (on average business owners have taken 18 days annual leave in the last 12 months) and they contact employees whilst they are on holiday which in turn leads to employees calling in sick to have rest, but not succeeding. It’s a vicious circle that businesses are increasingly becoming caught up in.
“Short-term it leads to stress, anxiety and lack of sleep, which then potentially leads to workforces that don’t take their full holiday, fearful they may miss out or lose work. This is likely to result in more time out with stress and ultimately burn out. This is not a sustainable solution and makes for a stressed-out unhappy workforce that means ultimately your business will lose them through absence, resignation or burn-out” warns Wendy.
She goes on to advise that helping to change this mentality has to come from the top and that business owners, managers and mentors have to embed a sense of achievement and success, alongside the ability to be able to take some time out. “We almost have to start retraining our workforces to encourage downtime to allow true focus when employees are working and switch off when they are not. Always working; actively monitoring emails, apps and web traffic is not a healthy way of working. There are many ‘switch off and slow down’ policies that are starting to work their way into the workplace, but many of these still aren’t taken seriously.”
How you can prevent an ‘always on’ culture
It’s clear that this always on culture isn’t manifesting itself in a positive way for employees. What can begin as a refreshing thirst for drive could soon lead to burnout. But how can you redefine your workplace culture? Here is what Wendy thinks you should do to prevent this from happening because it’s not as simple as rolling out a policy.
“Rolling out a policy and hoping that resolves things won’t work. I believe it’s about setting an example, providing support, and training staff to explain why switching off and taking your holidays is important; for wellbeing, for longevity and for business success. This isn’t just the case for employees. As a business owner or manager you need to lead by example. It’s so important that you have down-time and are fresh and energised, as you are responsible for the development and support of not only yourself, but also your business and your workforce.”
Making sure your workforce has a way of raising any issues that enables them to seek support when they really need it is as important and is how you can ensure you get to the root of the problem. Here are some of the ways you can make this happen in your workplace:
- Set up great management, mentoring and support functions. Employees need someone they can turn to.
- Utilise an Employee Assistance Programme
- Research more holistic solutions such as massage or relaxation programmes like yoga. Chill out areas are built as standard to many office environments as its important to have somewhere that employees can get away from work.
- HR support for allocation and usage of holiday time to ensure employees are fully supported in scheduling time out of the office.
- Return to work support for those that are absent due to stress or illness.
- Wellness training in-house to help support your team's development
- For the more serious levels of support many workplaces offer counselling support through their medical or EA programmes that can help directly with specific issues.
Join Wendy for this webinar to see how you can implement these ideas in your small business to prevent your staff from taking sickies.
Fostering an always on culture is causing an absence epidemic. Whilst business owners reap the rewards from an engaged and driven workforce they are subsequently not considering the long-term effects this has on their employees. Small businesses are thinking about their people too late, and are being hit in the bottom line because of it. Through setting a good example, encouraging communication early on and supporting their staff this can all be prevented.