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Reducing sick leave: everything you need to know

May 13, 2024
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What to do if the sickness rate is too high? What measures help and are also financially worthwhile?
Reducing sickness absence - Topic overview

High sickness rate as a warning signal

How high are the costs of a high sickness rate at company level?

How can you reduce days lost?

The costs and benefits of prevention measures differ significantly

Reduce sick days economically through MSK prevention

When is it financially worthwhile to reduce sick leave?

Correctly evaluate and effectively reduce sick leave

Personnel costs are one of the largest cost groups for many companies. Although the proportion of total costs can vary greatly depending on the industry, on average they are between 30 and 40 per cent. In retail and service companies, however, they can be as high as 60 per cent. Employees are therefore the biggest cost factor for many companies and at the same time the most valuable resource. After all, companies can only remain competitive in the long term if they have qualified, healthy and efficient employees. To ensure this, a company must create working conditions that promote the well-being of its employees. If this is not achieved, absenteeism increases while productivity suffers. In the following, we will show you how you can reduce sickness absence and what you need to bear in mind. 

High sickness rate as a warning signal

If a company offers poor working conditions, this is reflected in high levels of absenteeism. A distinction is made here between incapacity to work due to illness or absenteeism due to a lack of motivation and a poor relationship with the employer. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the latter amounted to an average of €1,199 per employee per year in 2009. In contrast, the costs of days lost due to illness are much higher, totalling € 129 billion for companies in the same year. In addition to the direct costs, companies also incur costs for the loss of added value, which totalled € 225 billion.

How high are the costs of a high sickness rate at company level?

The average sickness rate in German companies is 4.23%. A company with 100 employees and personnel costs of €41,000 therefore has sickness-related costs of €173,430.

However, if we now assume a company with a sickness rate of 6%, it already bears costs of €246,000. This example only refers to costs for days lost due to illness.

Another cost factor is presenteeism. This refers to the fact that employees come to work even though they are ill. Presenteeism also causes costs because sick employees perform less well and make mistakes more often. The costs of presenteeism are difficult for companies to determine but amount to an average of €2,399 per employee. Costs for absenteeism, which companies can calculate via the sickness rate, therefore only represent part of the costs, which means that many companies include an incorrect value in their calculations.

The costs for companies can therefore be immense, which leads us to the question: how can the sickness rate be reduced?

How can you reduce sick leave?

The previous example makes it clear that it makes perfect sense to minimise the visible sickness rate (absenteeism) and the non-visible sickness rate (presenteeism). To do this, it is first important to ensure transparency. Only when it is clear which circumstance or circumstances jeopardise the health of employees can appropriate action be taken. To this end, companies can carry out a risk assessment or develop a holistic Company health management introduce. This provides a fixed structure for possible causes and includes dimensions such as mental and physical stress or various stresses caused by the working environment. Specific reasons include, for example, poor workplace design, too much (performance) pressure or poor room ventilation.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution here, as OHF and OHM measures must always be customised to a company. In addition, the success of any measure to reduce sick days depends heavily on how many employees take part, depending on the programme.  

However, most days of absence can be attributed to musculoskeletal disorders, i.e. diseases of the musculoskeletal system. According to the DAK Health Report 2021, these are responsible for the most days lost in companies at 24.1 per cent. In second place are mental illnesses with around 17%. 

Generally speaking, days of absence can be avoided by encouraging exercise and avoiding stress.

  • In addition to maintaining health, reducing stress, increasing performance and creativity, exercise has many other benefits
  • Stress is largely determined by the corporate culture. Companies with a culture of error and open communication mean less stress for employees
  • The management style in the company has a significant influence on the well-being of employees and therefore also has a major impact

Read more about the development of illnesses and health problems in the workplace.

The costs and benefits of prevention measures differ significantly

Over the years, many preventive measures have been established to maintain health, but studies show that many do not deliver what they promise. Studies on the effectiveness of preventive measures for musculoskeletal disorders show that the continuity and long-term nature of measures are crucial. A seminar on stress prevention, a company run or a simple back training programme are therefore not enough. In addition, the effect of prevention measures always depends on how many employees are reached and activated.

This is achieved to a large extent through targeted communication of your BGF programme. Would you like to know how to do this? Read our article on successfully communicating BGF measures

Reduce sick days economically through MSK prevention

The literature distinguishes between four common ways of reducing days of absence due to musculoskeletal disorders. We will show you which these are below.

1. trainings (e.g. back training or dealing with stress)

The scientific literature indicates that preventive measures that rely solely on knowledge transfer and information dissemination are not effective in reducing the number of sick days due to musculoskeletal disorders or shortening the number of days lost. The results of several studies indicate that symptoms and the duration of complaints are not sufficiently reduced.

Therefore, "some authors even speak of moderate to strong evidence that educational programmes are unsuitable for the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders".

2.exercise programmes

Physical activity programmes are those that serve to increase physical resilience, improve mobility and increase the fitness of employees. Such health promotion programmes can effectively reduce absenteeism. The literature suggests that physical activity programmes are the single most effective method of reducing absenteeism.

According to Lühmann et al., the effectiveness of exercise programmes depends largely on the regularity and long-term nature of the measures.

3 Technical aids

Ergonomic aids such as mice and keyboards show no clear effect on reducing absenteeism. Studies by Eerd et al. suggest that "ergonomic mouse models" show slight evidence for the reduction of neck and shoulder problems. However, like Lincoln et al., they find no scientific evidence for the reduction of absenteeism through these.

4. multi-component programmes

Programmes that combine preventative measures such as training or exercise programmes with technical aids, i.e. ergonomic office equipment, have one of the greatest effects on reducing absenteeism. However, the extent of the effect on reducing absenteeism actually depends on how actively employees participate in the programmes. In addition, the intensity and continuity of combination programmes are also decisive for the health effect.

When is it financially worthwhile to reduce sick leave?

Ten studies from the USA show a consistently positive cost-effectiveness. The cost savings for companies result from sickness costs and days lost due to illness.

After a comprehensive evaluation by Chapman, it was found that occupational health and safety measures can reduce sickness costs by an average of 26.1% and absenteeism by 26.8%.

According to Kreis and Bödeker, there is a return on investment (ROI) of "1:2.3 to 1:5.9" for sickness costs and "figures of 1:2.5 to 1:10 can be found for absenteeism". This means that every euro invested in workplace health promotion pays for itself at least twice as much.

  • Hignett S (2003) Intervention strategies to reduce musculoskeletal injuries associated with handling patients: a systematic review. Occupational and Environmental Medicine and Maher CG (2000) A systematic review of workplace interventions to prevent low back pain. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 46 (4):259-269
  • Lincoln AE, Vernick JS, Ogaitis S et al (2000) Interventions for the Primary Prevention of Work-Related Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 18(4), supplement 1:37-50 and van Eerd D, Brewer S, Amick BC et al (2006) Workplace interventions to prevent musculoskeletal and visual symptoms and disorders among computer users: A systematic review. Institute for Work & Health, Toronto
  • Lühmann D, Burkhardt-Hammer T, Stoll S et al (2006) Prevention of recurrent back pain. Preventive measures in the workplace environment. German Agency for Health Technology Assessment of the German Institute of Medical Documentation and Information
  • Chapman LS (2005) Meta-evaluation of Worksite Health Promotion Economic Return Studies: 2005 Update. The Art of Health Promotion July/August:1-11
  • Kreis J, Bödeker W (2003) Health and economic benefits of workplace health promotion and prevention. Compilation of scientific evidence. IGA-Report 3.
  • Badura B, Schräder H, Vetter C (2008) Absenteeism Report, Occupational Health Management: Costs and Benefits

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