With the summer winding down and a chilly breeze persuading many of us back into cardigans, it’s only a matter of time before sniffle season starts. 2013 may have seen a drop in workplace absenteeism from 2012’s slight rise (plus an overall drop of 47 million lost working days since 1993), but when the cold weather rolls around, it is minor illness which is likely to be the second most common reason why our workforce won’t be at their desks in 2014.

According to the Office for National Statistics, coughs and colds are the second most common cause of absenteeism at work, accounting for 27 million lost days in 2013. The only factors more likely to result in an absence are muscoskeletal complaints (bad backs and necks) which resulted in 31 million days worth of absences last year. Here’s how the bigger picture looks:

Muscoskeletal conditions (bad necks and backs): 31 million days

  • Minor illnesses (coughs and colds): 27 million days
  • Stress, anxiety & depression: 15 million days
  • Other: 52 million days
  • Unstated: 6 million days

While overall absenteeism is coming down and has dropped substantially since the 1990s, there is surely more we can do. Thus far, the improved picture is believed to be down to a mixture of a rise in self-employment, better workplace health policies and more effort from businesses to look after their workers by offering extras like office fruit deliveries from companies like Fruitful Office (ideal for keeping up employee intake of cold-busting vitamins and minerals) and office massage sessions from mobile massage providers (great for improving posture at work and avoiding neck and back trouble).

With plenty of past success, continuing this positive trend could well be a case of simply keeping up the good work. A fact well worth remembering as the colds and flus of the Great British autumn and winter muster their strength for a fresh attack. If you’re keen to cut down on the sniffles, snuffles and absences, here are a few ways you can improve your own workplace policies, keeping your team lean, mean and fighting fit, even in the dank depths of November…

  1. Talk to your teamThere’s no point investing in an initiative which isn’t right for your employees. Talk to your team and find out (sensitively) which common health issues are most problematic in your workplace. For instance, if you have a number of smokers on staff, you could radically improve workplace health by arranging group cessation sessions. If they suffer particularly with muscoskeletal complaints, you could invest in more ergonomic office furniture, or arrange a weekly pilates session. Either way, talk to your staff and get them on side before you take another step.
  2. Lead from the front
    Don’t do what I do, do as I say is a terrible policy. The best way to encourage better health and fitness in your workplace is to lead by example. Get involved in cycle to work schemes, sign up for a charity run and encourage your staff to get involved too!
  3. Get blending
    Office wellbeing doesn’t have to cost the earth. Laying on free fruit is one of the most cost-effective ways to ensure your team are chock-full of vitamin goodness. If the free fruit novelty wears off, make a one off investment in a blender so that your staff can turn all of that gratis fruit into delicious office smoothies.
  4. Care about mental health
    Stress, anxiety and depression fill the 3rd position on the list of common factors behind absenteeism. It’s a very tricky subject and issue to handle sensitively but a good first step is to ensure your team feel comfortable talking to a higher up if they are experiencing any difficulties. They need to know that they can speak in confidence with someone in your organisation.
  5. Offer incentives
    Whether your have the budget for brilliant schemes like free gym membership for staff who attend at least 4 times a month, or focus on less costly incentives like awarding the team member with the “most improved fitness” each month the desk swap of their choice, everyone responds well to a good, old-fashioned carrot.

These tips indeed help to retain and boost the morale of the employees in your organization. This facilitates the boost of existing organization productivity at both the micro and macro level.

Do minor illnesses take their toll on your workforce during autumn and winter? What policies have you tried to combat coughs and colds? Share you experience of what works and what doesn’t with readers below. 


Terry Fortnam is a blogger, scribbler and (occasional) jogger sharing news and views on health and business with readers across the world and web.

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