Sick leave doesn't make people better
Leadership coach Blaire Palmer argues that taking a leave from a job that’s caused anguish isn’t the answer – it’s the workplace that needs to change.
It used to be that working hours were 9am to 5pm and then you were done. Home time. The Generation Game on TV or fondue with friends. I’m talking about the 70s.
That’s all changed. We now live in a 24/7 culture.
On Any Answers recently, a qualified accountant shared a dilemma familiar to many of us. The writer was signed off sick by the GP after suffering panic attacks and a decline in mental health. The employer asked for a handover (which was provided) and permission to call the accountant, while on sick leave, for advice. The accountant reluctantly agreed.
The anonymous AccountingWEB reader wrote: “I don't really want to be disturbed while I try to recover mentally. I have not been in this situation before and I do feel quite scared of the prospect of going back. I am also dreading the prospect of being roasted and possibly fired.”
The AccountingWEB readers weighed in overwhelmingly against taking work calls while off sick. But where should you draw the line?
Mental health leave isn’t the answer
The problem with taking leave from a job that’s caused you mental anguish is that, while you get a few weeks to reflect, recover and rebalance, you return to a workplace that is unchanged.
Of course, there are techniques to help us all handle stress better and you can use some of your time away from the day-to-day learning how to help yourself. But as soon as you return you’ll find many of those techniques hard to sustain given the onslaught of work (much of it saved up for your return).
Sick leave of this kind does nothing to resolve the issue at its root cause. In the example given by the AccountingWEB member, this company clearly had no comprehension of its contribution to the problem. By asking whether the accountant could be contacted while on leave they demonstrated that they had no intention of changing their practices. They continued to overstep the line.
How should the firm respond?
A single case of mental health leave should be enough to trigger a serious investigation by the firm’s leadership in to its own working practices. Rather than focusing purely on giving the individual time to get well (and getting by as well as possible in their absence), leaders need to ask:
“Do we create an environment here where people can do their best work?”.
“How do we collude in, or promote, behaviours that make our staff sick and less effective than they can be?
“What other evidence is there, apart from this one case, that we have an unhealthy working environment and how could we address these issues at their source?”
Why should you bother?
The cost of sick leave to the UK economy is huge. 62% of employees say they’ve taken a day off in the last year because of anxiety, depression or stress. Employees lose an average of 30.4 working days a year due to sickness or underperforming at work because of ill health, accoding to research by VitalityHealth. This costs the UK economy approximately £77.5bn a year.
It makes sense then to work out how to keep your people healthy. The cost of mistakes due to overwhelm, exhaustion or stress impact your reputation and bottom line. You not only lose staff but clients as well.
By the time someone is signed off by their GP you know you have a serious problem. The symptoms were there before, you just chose to ignore them.
Don’t wait until people are sick
Truly enlightened firms don’t wait until a doctor’s note. Instead, they are proactive, looking at how to create a healthy environment not just tweak a sick one.
Listening to staff woes is the first step. You need to listen to the stuff you don’t want to hear, the stuff that is directed at you.
And you need to look beyond the presenting issue. When people complain about the quality of the biscuits in the kitchen they aren’t really talking about the biscuits. They are feeling undervalued in general, and the poor quality of the biscuits is just the latest piece of evidence that they aren’t appreciated. Rather than just getting better biscuits, find out what would really make your people feel valued (and get better biscuits).
Disconnect working hours with contribution
The prevailing culture equates hard work with results. But there is evidence that a shorter working week leads to greater productivity. If you can’t cope when someone is away for three weeks without disturbing them (whether they’ve broken their leg, are on holiday or suffering from stress) you need to look at your expectations of people and your workload.
Jobs should be human-sized and hours should allow for people to have a life. There are successful firms who make this promise to their people. If yours can’t the problem isn’t your people, it’s the decisions you’re making and the behaviours you’re promoting at leadership level.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...