The corona effect: employees report sick less often, but stay away longer
People work from home, keep their distance and maybe wash their hands a little more often. Not only corona, but also colds and flu have little chance of being passed on. This is noticeable in the absenteeism due to illness. The number of sick reports in the first two months of this year halved compared to the same period last year, even before corona. This is reported by service providers ArboNed and HumanCapitalCare, who together register the absenteeism of 1.5 million people.
Industry peer Arbo Unie has also received considerably fewer absenteeism reports in recent months, according to its figures. This health and safety service supports more than 1.2 million workers and more than 12,000 organisations.
This decrease is not only because there was no flu epidemic as a result of the lockdown measures, but possibly also because employees and employers talk more often about combating absenteeism. That’s what Willem van Rhenen, professor at Nyenrode University and associated with Arbo Unie, is a stress expert and company doctor. “We think in terms of possibilities: what can someone still do without having to call in sick? Also for corona you saw that the number of reports for short-term absenteeism [minder dan zes weken] therefore already decreased.”
At the end of last year, Dutch employees actually took more sick days than usual, according to figures from Statistics Netherlands (CBS). In October, November and December 2020, absenteeism due to illness was 4.9 percent, the highest since 2002. The figures are always slightly higher in the fourth and first quarters (autumn and winter) than in the other quarters. That is precisely why the halving from the beginning of this year is striking, even if it does not apply to all groups of employees. Absenteeism in health and social care remains high at 5.9 percent in February.
Duration of absenteeism is increasing
The average duration of sick leave has increased. Because people with minor complaints call in sick less often, the share of absenteeism due to serious and complex conditions, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease or psychological complaints, has increased.
Another explanation for the longer absence is that many hospitals postpone regular care for Covid care. According to Truus van Amerongen, company doctor and medical director of ArboNed, people often have to wait longer for operations. “Not everyone can carry out their regular work in the meantime, resulting in longer absenteeism. Such long waiting times have been a problem in mental health care for some time. People sometimes wait six months for their turn.”
Figures from ArboNed show that the number of days that people are at home with psychological complaints has risen sharply in recent years. For example, recovery from burnout takes an average of 290 days – in 2016 this was still 167 days.
Van Amerongen is concerned about the long-term effects of corona on psychological absenteeism. “In addition to the physical complaints that the coronavirus entails, there are signs that it is also taking its toll mentally. Many companies do not yet know how to deal with ‘the new normal’. That uncertainty causes stress. We know that many employees are on their toes. People are fed up.”
Mental illnesses such as burnout, depression and overstrain have always accounted for about a third of the number of sick reports. This share may increase in the coming period, according to Professor Van Rhenen. In particular, a lack of social contacts due to working from home plays a role in this. “In the office there is always a colleague with whom you can share your concerns about your job or the situation. That helps to put things into perspective. If you sit alone in front of a screen, you are less likely to be corrected when negative thoughts or worries arise, which threatens to darken.”
A view on the future
That is difficult, even for people who want to return to the workplace after psychological absence. Van Rhenen: „It is especially important for people who are reintegrating to feel support from a manager or colleagues. At the office, others can see how you are doing, a chat is made quickly and it is easier to share concerns. Home workers miss those factors. That makes the return threshold higher.”
According to Van Rhenen, people have three basic needs: autonomy, connectedness and competence. Can I put in enough? Do I fit in at work? Am I able to continue to develop? Corona makes it more difficult to meet these needs. “Not only do you have less social contact, it is also more difficult from behind your screen to introduce into your work what you find important and to keep your competencies up to date.”
Since the second lockdown, employers have been paying more attention to the social and mental aspects of working from home, both company doctors say. Especially now that it is expected that many people will continue to work from home after the crisis.
Van Amerongen sees employers looking for ways to keep their finger on the pulse. “Some employers encourage mutual contact by organizing pub quizzes and online drinks or by letting colleagues call each other. Several executives no longer schedule video calls if they have a ‘bila’ [persoonlijk gesprek] have to do, but visit employees to talk to each other while walking. This personal attention is especially important for employees who are at risk of dropping out, in order to prevent long-term absenteeism due to psychological complaints.”