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The productivity problem: Does the answer lie in absence?

(Image credit: Image Credit: AdrienBe / Pixabay)

Recent data revealed that UK businesses have seen a staggering 113 percent increase in stress-related leave since the pandemic began: exhaustion and burnout are pervasive amongst the population and the effects are being felt by businesses of all shapes and sizes. A recent example includes how US-based Bumble closed its offices around the world to give its entire workforce its own circuit breaker lockdown to tackle burnout.

It’s certainly encouraging to see businesses taking tangible steps in response to a wave of exhaustion, but ideally it shouldn’t to get to a point where drastic action like this is necessary. A week off for the entire business will undeniably reduce burnout levels, but in Bumble’s case, this was at the cost of a week of productivity on a global scale. 

The presenteeism productivity problem 

The vaccine rollout has provided a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but the long-term wellbeing side effects might not be so easy to inoculate as we prepare for the future of hybrid working. A single week of the business shutdown may press the reset button on burnout within an organization, but it won’t fix the problem in the long term. If wellbeing remains unaddressed, it’s simply delaying the inevitable and potentially worsening its effects. 

Just as with a physical illness, when a workforce is suffering from a lack of support and wellbeing resources, the ripple effect is considerable. Stressed-out employees are unlikely to be as productive and, when stress levels have doubled in such a short period of time, presenteeism will start to spread throughout the business. Teams will find themselves unmotivated, dreading work and even resorting to handing in their notice as a way out of a stress spiral. Suddenly, the business can find itself losing top talent to competitors in conjunction with productivity bottoming out - this is the last thing you need whilst focussing on recovering from a global pandemic. 

So, how can businesses boost post-pandemic productivity without sacrificing workforce wellbeing?

Promoting time off to boost productivity  

It’s vital that employers recognize the importance of a well-supported workforce in order to increase productivity in a way that protects and promotes employee wellbeing. It may seem paradoxical, but the key to a productive workforce lies in an employer that promotes a healthy culture of absence amongst its employees. With an HR department and leadership team that champions taking regular breaks, businesses can cultivate a culture in which absence is actively encouraged and staff sickness is visible and understood rather than being swept under the carpet. 

Now more than ever, each person that works for your business will have commitments and daily stresses outside of work - business leaders need to understand and support their workforce through key moments in their life and demonstrate that they care. 

Stressed employees are unproductive, but it’s not simply a case of avoiding stress - rather promoting wellbeing. Happier employees get more done, are much more motivated and are less likely to take time off or even leave should things get tough. Wellbeing can be directly linked to a boost in productivity which has a knock-on effect that can reduce recruitment spending and improve your overall employer branding. 

Predicting the future with absence management 

At a time when the financial incentives for employees may not be feasible, investing in digital wellbeing support may be the benefit that makes the most difference for employees in the post-pandemic workplace. Now more than ever, management needs visibility of potentially busy periods where staff are off or isolating, and to use this data to get to the root of potential burnout issues well in advance.

Improving the employee experience starts with better insight and understanding of the common sources of stress in the workplace. Talking to your employees face-to-face about their work and stresses is an invaluable exercise that should be conducted as a matter of course. But no matter how open employees may be, they will never be able to tell the whole story - this is where the data comes in. 

Absence management tracking, alerts and insights could be the solution for avoiding burnout and boosting productivity. A system that can update managers in real-time will enable accurate forecasting around when staff can and should take holiday based on others' booked leave, sickness and overall team resourcing. 

Beyond simply presenting the data to inform accurate resource planning which maximizes productivity, reporting technology can also help to identify the sources of stress and harmful behavioral patterns that might once have remained invisible. For example, are certain teams calling in sick on a recurring basis? Could this be linked to a particularly stressful assignment?

Once it’s possible to identify these issues, the business can address them long before they become problems - avoiding sudden and retroactive reactions such as shutting down entire offices to avoid burnout. 

Overall, boosting productivity isn’t going to be a quick fix. Businesses can’t just address the common sources of stress and frustration that make life difficult - long-term solutions have to be implemented that can minimize burnout before it becomes an issue, and keep it low whilst empowering productivity to soar.

Rather than focussing on how to fix a productivity slump, think instead of your employees’ overall physical and mental health, and consider what you can do to continually promote wellbeing in the workplace. It’s much easier to prevent a burnout crisis than to fix one - the time to act is now.

Steve Arnold, Co-Founder, Edays (opens in new tab)

Steve is the CEO of e-days, the global absence management platform which provides mid-market and large-scale companies with an effective answer to complex requirements.