Staff sickness rises sharply in winter. Rebecca Thomson finds out how Liberty dealt with it

During the dark days of October to March, staff sickness shoots up 27% on average, the Office for National Statistics reported last month.

While some absenteeism is down to unavoidable genuine illness, continued lateness or absence is a problem both for the team left to cope and for the business as a whole.

“January and February are always the worst months for sickness,” says Jane Leadbetter, an HR consultant working for London department store Liberty, which is working to reduce the problems of staff absence and lateness.

How Liberty combats sickness absence

  • A new policy means employees must fill in a return-to-work form with their manager
  • A manager’s bonus depends partly on how good their team’s attendance is
  • Increasing awareness with presentations on the business impact of lateness and illness
  • Mentoring programmes and a focus on development helps ensure employees are happy
  • After three instances of illness in a year, employees must have a meeting with their manager

Liberty started addressing the issue in November, in a bid to save money on associated costs. While the figures for each separate department weren’t too bad, a new system requiring employees to swipe ID cards when they arrived and left showed a lot of time being lost across the business.

“We found five minutes here and there, and the odd day off, did make an impact when you add it up across the business,” says Leadbetter. Liberty focused on short-term absence and lateness - the effect of long-term absencewas removed from the project.

The first step was to raise awareness of sickness as a concern, letting workers know how much it costs the business and reminding them of the impact it can have when a member of a team is absent.

“There are lost sales, which you can’t even count, and the possible long-term perceptions of customers if there aren’t enough people to serve them,” explains Leadbetter.

“There’s also the impact on the staff who are in and who have to do things on their own. You can’t cost these things but it’s a problem.”

Part of Liberty’s response was to make it a “fabulous place that people want to be”. The retailer introduced social events for staff, and looked at development and mentoring programmes for teams. Part of a manager’s bonus now depends on their team’s good attendance.

The company also published a return-to-work policy that requires everyone who has had time off to fill in a return-to-work form with their manager - even if has been as little as a day’s absence. Leadbetter says the process means any problems are flagged up.

“We recognise that people might not be happy, and this process gives them an opportunity to talk about what’s going on,” she says.

Absence can be a problem for every company, especially for retailers who often need plenty of bodies to deal with high footfall during Sales.

But as Leadbetter says, a few simple steps can help manage the issue and save the business money.