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April 2019

[UPDATE] Your office is losing 100’s of days a year to absenteeism: what can you do about it?

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Workplace Hygiene

April has arrived, and with it comes a definite chill in the air. And we all know what that means… We’re heading into cold and flu season. A recent article on the Medical Academic website stated that South Africans spend an estimated R500 million on cough medicine every year.  This is a huge amount of money to treat colds and flu, and it doesn’t even start to take into account the financial cost associated with the loss of productivity caused by colds and flu.

According to Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA), absenteeism costs the South African economy around R12 - R16 billion per year, and the Human Capital Review estimates it to be an even higher R19,144 billion annually. This equates to around 15% of employees being absent on any given day.  When one looks at it this way, one can understand why absenteeism is possibly the single most expensive problem affecting business both locally and internationally.  Some researchers estimate that South African businesses are losing as much as 17% of their payroll every year due to absenteeism. In the current economic climate, what business can afford that?

According to South African legislation, the maximum statutory allowance for sick leave is 30 days in a three-year cycle.  A study by the Global Hygiene Council of more than 9 000 people across 17 countries - including South Africa - showed that the average person misses 4.5 days of work because of upper respiratory illnesses (mostly, the common cold).  

Sick absenteeism should run at about 1.5%, which means that for every 250 working days per year, the average employee should take 3.75 days off sick. Most South African companies have an overall absenteeism rate of between 3.5% and 6%, which is way over the acceptable limit and equates roughly to between 8 and 15 days per colleague per year.  In an office of just 50 colleagues, this would equate to approximately 400 to 750 productive days lost annually to sickness. When looked at like that, one can see where figures like R16 -R19 billion lost annually originate.

Costs associated with absenteeism include:

  • Wages paid to absent employees
  • Wages for temporary employees to fill in for absent colleagues
  • Overtime pay for employees filling in
  • Inferior quality of goods and services due to less productive casual labour  
  • Low morale and dissatisfaction by employees who witness continuous absenteeism by colleagues
  • Additional management time required for finding and training temporary staff

Stats from the Human Capital Review also show that:

  • 14.1% of the total sick absenteeism incidents in corporate South Africa are related to influenza;
  • 6.09% of the total sick leave incidents related to gastroenteritis every year;

That means that an average South African company with 50 employees could be losing up to 105 days per year due to influenza alone, and another 45 days to gastro. That’s 150 days a year lost to infectious diseases;  diseases which are spread - largely - by poor hand hygiene.  

Dr Peter Barratt, Initial Washroom Hygiene comments “Hand hygiene is really the key to mitigating the risks when it comes to the spread of germs in all offices. Poor hand hygiene is the major cause for the spread of common office illnesses such as colds, flu and Norovirus. Businesses need to ensure they have the right facilities in place to promote good hand hygiene across the company. This includes good quality soap from dispensers, hand drying equipment and hand sanitiser stations.”

Poor hand hygiene is a major contributor to absenteeism because 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch and cold and flu virus can stay alive for up to three hours on hands, and 48 hours on hard surfaces.  So as colleagues wander around the office, coughing and sneezing, they are turning your office into a fertile breeding ground for infectious illnesses.  

Which brings us to presenteeism, the phenomenon of employees coming to work when they're sick and should really be at home recovering.  Studies show that presenteeism costs companies up to four times more than absenteeism. This is because of the knock-on effect presenteeism can have, which ultimately lands up causing your company a far bigger loss of productivity and loss of money than absenteeism does.  When compared to absenteeism, presenteeism is less visible in the workplace and harder to quantify. But, if it really costs up to four times more than absenteeism, then it could be as much as R48 billion a year.

Because employees who come into work when they're sick don't function at their optimum capacity, the actual cost of presenteeism to your business includes not only infecting other employees with germs that could lead to sick days being taken, but also the hidden costs of a potentially lower quality of products or services; the   consequence of poor customer service; greater chance of workplace injuries; and time lost when tasks have to be repeated.

Make sure your office is better than the average.

If the average medium-sized South African company is losing up 400 - 750 days a year to absenteeism, how does YOUR company measure up?

Investing in good hand hygiene is just one way of bringing those sick days back in line with the industry average.  Another way is looking at whether your business has a culture of presenteeism, and actively encouraging unwell colleagues to stay at home and recuperate, rather than coming into the office and spreading the misery.  Hygiene services aren't as expensive as you might think. Did you know you can invest in a hygienic office for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee per day? Find out how.


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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie is the Category Manager at Rentokil Initial, and has worked in the hygiene and pest control industry for 12 years. Although after 12 years cockroaches still have the power to terrify her, she has learnt countless ways to defeat germs both in the workplace and at home. She is a passionate advocate for Global Handwash Day and the health benefits that can be derived from regular handwashing and hygiene practices. When not contributing to the Initial blog, Nathalie is writing press releases for sister businesses, Rentokil and Ambius. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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