Sick Day Special – Part 2. Disengagement and Sickness Absence – Healing Through Culture and Office Design

Mar 9, 2018

There’s a link between employee engagement, workplace satisfaction and sickness absence. Of course, there’s more going on than our physical environment — leadership and culture for starters — but what’s around us is more important than we might think.

  • Disengagement is a cause of absence sickness
  • 85% of staff worldwide are “not engaged or actively disengaged”
  • Employee engagement correlates with workplace satisfaction
  • One in three UK workers are not happy with their workspace

Disengagement and absence

Employee engagement is a much-reported topic these days. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report says that as much as 85% of staff worldwide are “not engaged or actively disengaged.” That’s a big number. A global study by US furniture supplier, Steelcase, paints an equally bleak picture, saying only 13% of workers are “highly engaged.”

It’s a worry. Because disengagement is one of the causes of absenteeism, says this Forbes article: “Employees who are not committed to their jobs, coworkers and/or the company are more likely to miss work simply because they have no motivation to go.”

Meanwhile, businesses are counting the cost of sick day absence while presenteeism and mental ill health are rising steadily.

Employee engagement correlates with workplace satisfaction.

One third of UK workers are just not happy with their workspace, according to the Steelcase Global Report. In fact, the UK falls below the global norm on “almost every workplace satisfaction metric,” says the furniture supplier, which claims that “employee engagement correlates with workplace satisfaction” and “engaged employees have more control over their experiences at work”.

Are we taking time out when we need it? Read our Sick Day Special Report to find out more. 

Complaints ranged from an uncomfortable temperature to bad lighting in the survey which spanned more than 12,000 workers across 17 countries. In the UK, almost two thirds of workers (59%) say they can’t choose where to work in the office based on the task, two out of five (43%) say they can’t concentrate easily and half report they can’t work in teams without being interrupted.

Leesman Index results corroborate Steelcase’s results. It turns out that most employees are not satisfied with the following (in order, least satisfied first):

  • availability of quiet rooms (72% dissatisfied)
  • temperature control (71%)
  • variety of work spaces (70%)
  • noise levels (69%)
  • plants/greenery (69%)
  • informal work areas & break-out zones (64%)
  • air quality (61%)
  • atriums communal areas (59%)
  • décor (58%)
  • ability to personalise workstations (52%)
  • office lighting (43%)
  • natural light (43%)

How do we fix this?

Of course, we can’t tackle engagement and sick day absence just by changing our physical environment. It starts with our organisation’s culture. But office design is a huge part of the mix. “It’s all about management and leadership,” says Jacqui Kemp, director of Your People Potential. “They have a responsibility to set the standards and culture. But work environment is so, so important in terms of wellbeing, mental health. We can’t underestimate the impact it has on us.”

Debi O’Donovan, director of the Reward Employee Benefits Association (REBA), agrees: “If you walk into an office and it feels friendly, and it’s bright, clean, and modern — it’s not dated, dirty and everybody isn’t tucked away in dark holes — that’s going to make you feel better. It does make a difference.”

Friendships improve performance

Debi is a big believer in the power of autonomy, community, trust and flexibility to tackle sickness absence.

“Emotional and social health is an indicator of high engagement which correlates with well-being,” she says. “I’m starting to hear this more and more with the organisations we’re working with. They’re either banning eating at their desk or encouraging people to have breakfast or lunch together because they can see how that builds relationships in the workplace.

“If you’re thinking about workplace design, having somewhere where people can come together, whether to work or eat, is important. I am seeing this coming through in employers’ wellbeing strategies — they see it as important and are putting that element where they can — because the social impact on wellbeing is huge.”

The World Health Organisation criteria include social and emotional well-being in the determinants of health. And, Gallup asks the question about having friends at work in its twelve key dimensions that describe great workgroups. It says those who had a best friend at work were 43% more likely to receive recognition and praise for their work. Best friends improved performance in other areas too, it says, such as being recognised for progress, having their opinions count and having the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

Flexibility, support and trust

Debi adds that flexibility of where you work (where the role allows), allows people to still be productive if they need time off for personal reasons, whether they need to look after an elderly relative or they feel like they “just can’t face the world”.

She says: “Being flexible like this will help with absence levels. If your employer makes it hard to talk about these delicate topics, it’s easier just to say you have a cold and call in sick. So, support and trust from your line manager — and the ability to have honest conversations — is crucial. If you can trust your line manager enough to be honest about why you can’t come into work, that means you don’t have to lie, which helps your own stress levels and you will feel mentally better. Line managers are key to all this.”

According to the CIPD’s Absence Management Survey 2016, the fourth most common cause of work absence is home/family/carer responsibilities. The second is stress.

Latest trends “no silver bullet”

“Break-out spaces, entertainment areas, agile workspaces and community-focused designs are great for our wellbeing,” says Jacqui. “But it needs to be managed properly. It has to be done for the right reason, and it has to be effective, not just to show off to clients. Hot-desking and home working can also be negative for some people if it’s not managed correctly.

“We are territorial beings. We like consistency. Knowing where we are working every day, and personalising the space, is important for (emotional) security. So, it can create anxiety if not handled correctly. Home working, too, can mean people miss out on social and work-related opportunities, and it can damage team working.”

Debi agrees: “Offering a variety (of workspaces) is good, but only if they want to. Most people are creatures of habit. Some things like hot-desking aren’t great if you tell them where to work. There’s been a big rise in hot-desking, and I get a lot of employers saying that it’s not a silver bullet. People are tribal, they want to sit in teams in their groups. People want control. That’s about autonomy.”

Autonomy = satisfaction

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) management standards cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased sickness absence rates. Among the standards are ‘demands’ (including how well work environment concerns are addressed) and ‘control’ over how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

“Most importantly,” says Jacqui, “if you’re going to change anything, consult the people using it or they’ll draw their own conclusions, and that’s not always good.”

A range of adjustable work environments

What’s notable in Steelcase’s report in relation to satisfaction and engagement is the lack of autonomy. Only two out of five said they would adjust office temperature, while one in five could change the lighting. If you extrapolate that to every aspect of the office, it hits engagement big-time, says Christine Congdon, director of global research communication and editor of Steelcase’s 360 Magazine.

“Our research has consistently shown that the most engaged workers are those who have autonomy over how and where they work, whether adjusting the temperature, lighting, or workspace to suit their needs,” she says.

“When people feel like they have choice and control over various aspects of their physical work environment, it leads to greater satisfaction overall. Everybody is different and personal preference will depend on an individual’s natural physiology, their mood on a particular day and the task they are working on. To cater to these constantly changing needs, employers should pay more attention to providing a range of working environments, including the ability to adjust workspace basics as required.”

“A distinguishing characteristic of engaged employees is that they have a greater degree of control over where and how they work, including access to privacy when they need it. They are empowered, both by organisational decisions and the spaces made available to them within their workplace, to make choices about where and how they work.

“This means they can manage their need for privacy so they can concentrate easily and work with teams without disruptions. Engaged employees tend to work in organisations that support two-way communication: Real-time information about the company is available and people are able to freely express their ideas. This finding suggests that a key design principle for the workplace is to create a range of spaces — for groups and individuals, mobile and resident workers — and corresponding work policies that enable employees to make choices about the best ways to work.” So how can businesses improve their office environments, and cater to employee satisfaction? Read our Sick Day Special Report

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