CEO That People Thing Ltd and Founder of A Brilliant Gamble
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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.

27th Sep 2019
CEO That People Thing Ltd and Founder of A Brilliant Gamble
Columnist
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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.

Replies (5)

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By mrscg1975
01st Oct 2019 09:08

My partner was off work with stress, including work stress, for two working weeks. His employer contacted him 6+ times in those two weeks including requesting HR interview him. He took his own life the morning after receiving the voicemail from HR. Lessons need to be learned.

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Replying to mrscg1975:
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By rockallj
01st Oct 2019 11:07

mrscg1975 wrote:

My partner was off work with stress, including work stress, for two working weeks. His employer contacted him 6+ times in those two weeks including requesting HR interview him. He took his own life the morning after receiving the voicemail from HR. Lessons need to be learned.

This is truly awful and my heart goes out to you.

Businesses of all sizes and hues need to learn that poor mental health due to work pressures is a real problem. The lack of awareness and the fact that mentally compromised folk don't "look" unwell feeds ignorance.

So if someone is unwell whether physically or mentally, they need to be left to recover.

And when staff are well but away on courses, holiday or funerals, again their space should be respected. Always.

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Replying to rockallj:
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By mrscg1975
01st Oct 2019 13:55

He worked for a multinational bank....

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By Bruce Roberts
01st Oct 2019 13:14

Mental Health issues are complex and they are rarely just to do with working practices or the work environment. Whilst every business should endeavour to provide a work environment that is as stress free as possible the employer has no control over (nor even the right to know about) the stresses present in the private lives of their employees.

I agree that sick leave from work very often doesn't solve the problem, but that is partly becasue it is often not work that was the problem in the first place.

This is an absolute minefield, especially for small employers.

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All Paul Accountants in Leeds
By paulinleeds
03rd Oct 2019 12:58

I worked for a large independent firm in Leeds for 8 years. I'm nearly 51 and have worked in several accounting practices though out my successful career. Mental health had never even crossed my mind until I joined the horrible firm. They had no idea about mental health.

Unless the work place culture is changed then it's almost pointless having sick leave. The work situation will still be therefore when you go back; though sometimes you cannot function due to stress and anxiety and therefore must take sick leave.

I still remember being in the Managing Partner's office explaining how the atmosphere was toxic and how I was struggling.

He gave the analogy of two runners in a race where one of them had tried really hard but had come in second in the race. He said that that was not good enough; it was all about winning and being the best.

I was demoted and given a pay reduction.

When I did try to talk to colleagues, just for a release etc, the Managing Partner said that they are not skilled mental health professionals and that I should not air my issues at work!

The Managing Partner had an MBA and I though that when I joined the firm that he'd have some idea about running a business and understanding people.

Unfortunately, the Managing Partner locked himself in a large office, lived in the country in a gated estate, was from a minority background and had no idea about people.

I now run my highly successful firm from home and make multiples of my former employer's salary. If only he had only harnessed my skills then he would have made a good profit from me and had a happier workforce. I've never seen staff turnover is a professional firm so high.

I appreciate the difficulty for any business, especially untrained and unskilled business owners and managers. However, it is good to talk and a supportive environment would have greatly helped.

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