Work woes in winter: Managing sickness absence and being alive to employee mental health issues

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This article explores the reasons why sickness absence and mental health issues may rise among employees during the festive period and what employers can do to support their employees during this time.

Christmas is traditionally an exciting time of year, but the colder weather and shorter nights can cause lower mood for a lot of people. When feeling low, people can also be more susceptible to illness, picking up unwanted coughs and colds which leaves them feeling even lower. As a result, work-related absences tend to increase this time of year and employers are left short staffed.

What practical steps can employers do to help manage sickness absence? 

  • Clearly set out expectations around the process to be followed if an employee needs to call in sick. A review of the current sickness policy might be in order to ensure it is up to date and reflects best practice.
  • Training managers to ensure they understand the sickness policy and how to implement it in a consistent way will help employers keep on top of any absence issues in a fair way.
  • Managers should lead by example, taking time off when they are not well enough to work and being transparent with their team. They should respect the sickness policy, remaining offline to send a clear message to the team that it is ok to do the same when genuinely ill.
  • If appropriate, offer employees the opportunity to work from home when they feel well enough to work but have a minor illness (like a cold). It is not only beneficial for the employee who may be more comfortable at home, but prevents germs spreading round the office. 
  • Despite the above, remote working can make it much harder to monitor employee wellbeing. Employers should be mindful not to promote the ‘presenteeism’ culture (which does nothing to support overall wellbeing) and encourage adherence to the sickness policy. 
  • Some employers offer their workforce additional wellbeing days, in addition to annual leave entitlements, to provide time off when mental health is suffering. They may prove a useful aid if an employee is not feeling mentally well and needs a day to reset. That said, this benefit would need to be managed carefully and not relied upon as a replacement for other workplace measures.

Remember it’s not just physical health that can suffer at this time of year

The change in seasons can have a greater impact on mental health more generally (medically known as ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’). Whilst the winter months can be hard for all, the Christmas and New Year period in particular can be a difficult time of year for some, enhancing feelings of loneliness, by serving as a reminder of loved ones they have lost. Simply put, some people just don’t feel like joining in with the festivities.

Furthermore, the financial pressure that individuals are currently facing as a result of the cost of living crisis may also cause additional stress and worry as they navigate the festive season. The increasing costs of living combined with the pressures to buy gifts and eat out can result in individuals feeling overwhelmed and anxious, particularly if they are forced to take out loans or increase their debt to meet these expenses.

Employers should remain mindful of this and supportive of those employees who may be struggling.

But what can employers do to help?

  • Implement a clear mental health strategy which ensures employees get the support they need if they start to struggle. The stigma often associated with mental health can prevent individuals from reaching out to get support so employers should encourage open discussion. The strategies and policies should be reviewed and updated regularly as our knowledge and understanding of mental health develops. 
  • Training managers to be able to recognise symptoms of different mental health conditions will help them to feel confident having sensitive conversations with their direct reports and signposting them to additional support.
  • Consider what, if any, reasonable adjustments could be implemented for employees that have disclosed their mental health struggles. ACAS guidance on this area can be a good starting point for employers to assist with navigating this issue.
  • Encouraging managers to have regular one-to-ones with their direct reports will help maintain good working relationships. Managers should use this time to check in on employee wellbeing and create a safe space for employees to raise any issues. 
  • Introduce mental health champions within the workplace. This helps to create an inclusive workplace where people can be themselves and feel supported whilst at work. 
  • Highlight the support available and how to access this. For example, employee assistance programmes or other related mental health services through private medical insurance.
  • Make festive social events optional - especially if there is a cost attached. Remember not everyone has the same desire to socialise around Christmas or the same spending power.

Regardless of whether it is physical or mental health at risk, employers should be mindful that both could result in lengthy absenteeism if not supported and managed correctly. Employees showing signs of ill health (in whatever form) should be supported accordingly and adjustments made in the workplace, if appropriate. By taking proactive steps to support employee wellbeing, employers can help ensure their employees remain healthy, happy and productive throughout the festive season and beyond. 


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.


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