Absenteeism & Presenteeism

June 12, 2011

Recent reports show that average sickness absence fell from 6.7 to 5 days in 2010, the lowest for over two decades. The EEF/Westfield Health survey also found that 45% of employees had no time off at all. Data from 454 employers demonstrated a number of factors, including the impact of the fit note, line managers taking greater responsibility for absence management and employers funding private health care.

What I cannot find anywhere is any recent data about presenteeism (lost productivity through people at work but feeling and performing below par). This is obviously hard to measure but it seems logical that, in a troubled economy (with increased unemployment and reduced job security), people might be concerned about taking time off. Can we then infer that some of the improvement in absenteeism statistics can be attributed to presenteeism? That is, people are still sick but just not taking time off. We may never know!

The presenteeism research that does exist suggests that its cost is dramatically higher than the cost of absenteeism.

There are many ways that ergonomics interventions can impact presenteeism and we are always looking for simple ways to assess their success (or otherwise). Such implementations should always enhance wellbeing and performance but their impact may be hard to measure.

The Work Screen tool (reviewed in our October 2010 webinars) assesses “Work Instability” using a unique scale incorporating both physical and psycho-social factors. This enables employers to identify those struggling with their workload and formulate an action plan to address their needs. Subsequently, further Work Screens can be carried out to assess the effectiveness of the interventions.


Compliance or Investment? Arguing the Case for Ergonomics Projects

May 29, 2013

[This article was first published in Health & Safety Matters magazine, May 2013]

Cafe working

Cafe working

It seems to me there are two ways of thinking about the funding of workplace ergonomics and it is essential to identify which of these two modes applies to your employer (or client). Unless you do so, you may be wasting time and energy by approaching issues the wrong way.

“Compliance Mode” applies to organisations that accept their obligations but are not motivated to spend beyond the demands of minimum compliance.  They will do what they must in order to remain within the law but regard these commitments simply as unavoidable costs. And the way we all respond to costs is to make every effort to minimise them.

By contrast, “Investment Mode” applies to organisations which regard ergonomics (probably alongside health and wellbeing) programmes as investments in the business.  Their approach recognises that investing in the education, comfort, posture, health and fitness of the workforce will result in improved productivity to the benefit of the business as a whole.  Their focus will be to identify the return on that investment.

Sit-stand working

Sit-stand working

Clearly, these two modes are not absolutes and commercial pressures and available resources will also impact how an employer responds to any individual project.  However, my experience is that there will be an overriding culture within an organisation that will generally lean in one of these two directions which are, by definition, divergent views.

It is equally important to understand whether employees in the business actually share the organisational culture as it is publicly portrayed. If employees sneer at corporate initiative posters or make comments such as “they say that but …” about declared organisational intentions, there is clearly misalignment.  Other tell-tale signs of disparity in conversations with managers are expressions like “I hear what you’re saying but…” or references to “expectation management”.

“Engagement” is a word that frequently appears in discussions about getting buy-in for ergonomics, health & safety or wellbeing programmes and the level of staff engagement is frequently a good indicator about the organisational culture.  If personnel genuinely believe that their employer cares about their wellbeing, they probably work for an “Investment Mode” employer.

Dealing with Compliance Mode employers is a simple, if unfulfilling, process.  Conversations will be short-term by nature and the focus is on price.  Such organisations are not interested in medium-term returns and will, typically, buy a cheaper product even if it will have a disproportionately short life expectancy. Personnel in such organisations frequently do not see their own future in the business as long-term and, as such, are not concerned about considering the impact of a project too far into the future.

Hot desking

Hot desking

Investment Mode organisations are much more rewarding to work with but project acceptance should still not be taken for granted.  It is important to be properly prepared and ensure proposals are suitably focussed. Here are some ideas to achieve success:

  • Do your research. Ensure that you understand the objectives of the project and ensure your proposal matches them.  For example, if you are trying to improve the ergonomics of home-workers, is the question about the furniture or laptop use or the need to carry equipment around? (It’s probably all three!).  Remote working also raises major communication and training issues so it is important, not just to provide the right equipment, but to demonstrate how training and monitoring can be implemented.
  • Do not ignore the ancillary considerations. How important is the look of the product?  If the project relates to a new, state-of-the-art building, how will your proposal fit into the surroundings.  Often the adjustability and personalisation espoused by ergonomics may conflict with the architect’s vision.  All those individually set electric sit-stand desks will play havoc with the clean lines of the new open-plan design!
  • Are there other areas of the business where cost savings could be made as a result of this project?  For instance, buying laptop stands with a keyboard and mouse may save the purchase of docking stations and/or extension monitors.
  • Are there other ongoing projects or issues that this project would support.  What are the priorities of the Occupational Health or Wellbeing teams at the moment?  Speak to these departments as well as HR and IT in case there are mutual benefits.
  • Are there any other current initiatives that can be aligned to the project brief?  Is absenteeism, presenteeism or employee fitness a current focus?  How might your project help to improve these?
  • Are there any broader corporate objectives that you can include in your proposal? For example, what is the organisation’s position on sustainability?  How does it implement its CSR policies?  Often products promoted by ergonomics companies have a good environmental story that will align strongly with the corporate philosophy of an Investment Mode employer.

Finally, ensure you present a coherent financial case.  Remember that it’s the return on the investment that will ultimately win the argument.


20 Years of DSE Assessments

January 8, 2013

ImageIt is 20 years since the Health & Safety “Six Pack” was launched. As we enter the third decade of DSE assessments and management, I have been reflecting on that part of the Six Pack with which I have been most involved: the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 – and how people have responded to it.

There have been enormous changes since January 1993, not just in the computers people use but in the nature of work and workplaces.

The most conspicuous change is obviously in the technology. When the Regulations first came into force, a “portable computer” weighed about the same as a sack of coal and, if not exclusively mains-powered, had a battery life equivalent to a teenager’s attention span. The 2002 amendments to the Regulations recognised the challenges created by laptop technology advances.  However, they did not in any way anticipate the dramatic changes to work habits and data access that would come about through wi-fi, cloud computing, tablets and smartphones.

Just when we thought we had a grip on the physical answers to musculo-skeletal problems for computer users, along comes “iPad shoulder” and “smartphone finger”!

Equally important (especially right now) are the issues of Smart Working, stress at work (something we hardly considered in the nineties) and changing attitudes to work amongst those now entering the workforce.

Rather than contemplate the evolution of approaches to the Regulations, it is probably easier to consider the fundamental differences (as I see them) in our thinking about office ergonomics between when they started and what we do now. Here are some thoughts:

  • 20 years ago, most people could barely spell ergonomics, let alone understand what it meant. Today, most people have a view about what it is but this is very often partial or even skewed. “It’s about chairs” is a common theme but a worrying number of those with a view seem to have learned what they know from product brochures or assumptions drawn from other experiences.
  • The word “ergonomic” seems to have been hijacked by marketing people and used as a generic adjective to describe just about anything. Where a justification for its use is provided, the justification may not be particularly robust.
  • InputDevicesThe constant flow of new computer input devices seems to be unending. As Logitech, Microsoft, and now even Apple, introduce more products claiming better ergonomics benefits, new specialist designers and manufacturers continue to appear and several of these make claims negating the benefits claimed for other products! Again, the manufacturer’s marketing budget (rather than ergonomics benefits) often seems to be the driving force in the popularity of such products.
  • Workplace stress is very much more of a topic.  Since the economy changed in 2008, presenteeism has been come a real issue. We find there is a stress element to growing numbers of the musculo-skeletal issues we are asked to address and it is essential that these problems are addressed in a holistic manner.
  • The disparity between pro-active organisations and those who regard every personnel welfare issue as a cost to be minimised (or avoided) is probably larger than it ever was. Indeed, the dynamic, investing employers are becoming more and more sophisticated whilst others, especially in the current economic climate, slip further behind.

As I have started to think about this, it becomes clear that there is much more to say but this is more than enough for one article! I have made notes for at least two more pieces that will spin out of this. As usual, I make no claims to being comprehensive in my analysis and welcome comments, thoughts or constructive arguments!


Closing a Building is the Beginning, not the End

July 30, 2012

There are many reasons for initiating a Smart Working project but one of the most common is the need to reduce real estate.  Defining the project, identifying appropriate personnel and job roles, establishing procedures, managing consultations and setting the roll-out agenda and timescale are all significant projects in their own right.

As a result, it is very easy to focus on closing buildings and “getting people out there” (whether that means home, hub or hot-desk working).  But what happens once they are “out there”?

It is quite possible that some (or all) of the original project team may be redeployed or disbanded at this stage – just when the real, long-term projects are beginning.  Whether the challenge is showing managers how to manage staff no longer under their constant supervision or showing those same staff how to manage themselves when they are not constantly supervised, there are new procedures to be created, resources to be provided and progress to be tracked.

It is also important to appreciate that problems arising out of failure to manage the new culture effectively may take some time to become evident (in much the same way that reduced absenteeism is almost certainly masking increased presenteeism in the current economy).

To ensure that Smart Workers are effective wherever they “touch down”, here are 10 simple rules.  They are by no means comprehensive but give a good overview and, for clarity, focus principally on computer users:

  1. Ensure they have proper health and safety training appropriate to their new environment.
  2. Ensure you provide clear guidance about appropriate behaviour.  Don’t take it for granted that common sense will prevail!  If they spill boiling water on themselves whilst making coffee in their own home during work hours, or trip over the cat whilst getting their laptop out of the car, or set up their workstation on the landing and roll their chair away from the desk and down the stairs, how can you minimise the likelihood of, and your liability exposure to, such events?
  3. Think about the physical ergonomics.  If they work at the kitchen table on a dining chair at the wrong height and use a laptop without a separate stand, keyboard and mouse, then musculo-skeletal problems are almost inevitable.  Back, neck or upper limb pain will, at the very least, inhibit productivity.  In the longer term, this may lead to absenteeism and, potentially, litigation.
  4. Provide guidance about posture.  Assuming the equipment makes good posture possible, personnel need to be trained to understand what good posture is, how to achieve it and why it is important.
  5. Carry out proper risk assessments. A home workstation will be very different from something provided in the office.  Use a DSE risk assessment that is specifically designed for home workers.  A computer-based version will be easiest to manage.
  6. Set up a mechanism to remind and prompt users to take breaks, step away from their desk, stretch and refocus.  This can be done through periodic email reminders, internal chat/social media tools or dedicated software such as CtrlWORK.
  7. If they spend a lot of time on the telephone, ensure they use a headset.
  8. Make sure that any equipment you provide is simple to use and obvious to set up.  If not, assume it won’t be used!
  9. Check regularly that individuals are coping.  Is the new way of working matching their work-life balance expectations? Are they managing the workload?  Are they feeling isolated?  Early recognition of problems and prompt interventions to address them are essential.
  10. Cut them some slack!  If they want to start work at 07:00am and then walk the dog for two hours at lunchtime, think seriously about whether the business can accommodate that and whether it will significantly increase both productivity and job satisfaction.

In one of my recent monthly eBulletins, I provided a list of the tools we offer to address all these issues.  More details here.  As always, I welcome comments, ideas and challenges !


RSI or BPS?

December 12, 2011

Since we started working with Work Screen, I have become increasingly interested in the psycho-social factors surrounding the many musculoskeletal issues we address each year.  I’m not any sort of expert (I’m no more than a beginner) but I have researched the topic, attended resilience training and had many discussions with experienced professionals so I’m coming to understand more of the “bigger picture”.

What certainly seems to be the case is that, where we assist individuals with apparent musculoskeletal problems (bad backs, upper limb disorders, etc.), it is apparent that issues beyond the purely physical are becoming increasingly relevant.  At the moment, these observations are entirely anecdotal but conversations with physiotherapists, GPs and others suggest my observations are well-founded.

So how does an employer address the biopsychosocial (BPS) needs of their personnel?  Many of the people we deal with are working longer hours with fewer resources than a few years ago.  Most organisations in both the public and private sector are still cutting back or, at the very least, maintaining strict controls over costs.  As I have explored elsewhere, reduced absenteeism statistics may be concealing increased presenteeism.

Wellness or wellbeing programmes are becoming more widespread and, it seems to me, there is a clear need to provide personnel with more information and guidance to increase their resilience.  I don’t pretend to have answers – just questions!  I welcome feedback from anyone who can tell me more about this topic.  I think its relevance will continue to grow over the next few years.


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