In a climate of unprecedented pandemics, neighbouring armed conflict, and the cost of living being labelled a ‘crisis’, the importance of employers supporting people who may take short and long-term leave from work, cannot be overstated. Employees may take time off work for a variety of reasons, including; short-term sickness to longer-term health issues, maternity / paternity leave, sabbaticals and career development opportunities. While all incredibly different reasons, each of the above scenarios require employers to provide adequate support and guidance to not only keep morale, engagement and retention high but to reduce the risk of attrition and prolonged absence.
Supporting employees before, during and after their period of leave could be the difference between someone choosing to stay or leave a company.
According to research published by Oxford Economics and Unum, “the average cost of turnover per employee [in the UK] earning £25,000 a year or more is £30,614” so by replacing three employees on that wage in a year, employee turnover cost could be nearly £92,000 (Bright HR: The cost of employee turnover). The cost of replacing employees includes factors such as; hiring costs, job advertisement charges, interview arrangements and time spent away from daily tasks, induction and training costs and likely loss of productivity in the initial stages of onboarding. Focusing on ways to keep employees engaged, happy and committed is incredibly important for their wellbeing and career growth but also for business retention and productivity.
IDEX Consulting spoke to Louise Bibb, Regional Manager for Financial Services, on her experience of long-term professional leave, how it may have impacted her work and life, and how IDEX Consulting has supported her throughout the period.
What do you think the emotional impact is for those who take long periods off work?
In my own life, I’ve experienced having to take time off work due to injury and subsequent medical treatment, twice in the last three years. One the first occasion I was living on my own, and the second time I was living with a partner. I can absolutely say there is a huge emotional impact from having time off work. The biggest obstacle for me was the anxiety and guilt that came with having to rely on my partner, family and friends to help me with simple daily tasks that at one time I wouldn’t have given a second thought to.
The sudden physical disability of not being able to perform simple tasks came with a mental toll I wasn’t expecting.
There was, of course, the crippling financial worry of being unable to work. To add to that, being bed bound and stuck inside the house knocked my confidence so severely, I still feel I’m battling elements of that now. It’s a very lonely experience, and for those of us who have in previous times enjoyed the privilege of being able-bodied, it’s particularly frightening to realise how quickly that can change.
There are a few factors that can affect a person’s mental health when they’re on leave.
Anxiety and Guilt:
Individuals can often experience anxiety and guilt when taking time off; with the stress frequently centering around the workload they leave behind and the impact of their absence on colleagues / the business.
Isolation and loneliness:
Long-term absence is rarely planned. With a person’s circle of friends and family likely working regular jobs, the reality is an isolating one.
For those who rely on a regular income, taking unpaid time off or facing financial constraints during a break can lead to stress and worry.
Identity and purpose concerns:
Work can be an essential part of a person's identity and sense of purpose. Taking time off can sometimes lead to feelings of uncertainty or loss of direction.
How have IDEX Consulting supported you before and during your time off?
I have had a huge amount of support both from the company and my colleagues. To name a few:
Private Medical Insurance through Vitality: I was seen quicky by a specialist consultant, with an MRI scan within two weeks and my operation in just six! Were this not an option, I would have been stuck with my pain for months, likely with far more time unable to work.
Financial support: Of all my worries, IDEX ensured paying my bills wasn’t one.
Emotional support: With regular check-ins to see how I was, cards, and copious chocolate from the team, I was spared the awful job security worries that come with severe illness.
Communication / updates: I decided to remain in the group chats and email groups so I didn’t feel like I was out of touch with the team. It also meant I was kept up to date with what was happening in the market.
Equipment: IDEX provided a new electric desk and monitor to support my lower back issues. Their continuing assessments on how they could support me meant a smoother and speedier recovery.
Phased return to work: While I was keen to get back to my profession, IDEX understood I needed to be careful. They offered me reduced hours and flexibility, allowing me to never miss a physio appointment.
“It’s incredibly important to us at IDEX to provide bespoke levels of support to all of our team members, whether that’s for mental, and or physical health, financial aid or to support personal goals. Louise is a key member of our Financial Services division and she’s overcome some big challenges with her health. We wanted to stand by her on that journey to ensure she felt supported, valued and inspired to realise her potential when she returned”, says Tony Bates, MD for Financial Services.
Do you think there’s stigma around employees taking time off work?
Without a doubt, and for everyone involved. McKinsey put it well when they said it’s a “topic [that] is intensely personal, potentially inaccessible to employers, and seemingly as uncomfortable to discuss as it is to actively encourage” (McKinsey: Help your employees find purpose or watch them leave). Traditionally, there has been views that individuals taking time off are ‘taking the mick’, ‘are not really unwell’ and should ‘just get on with it’. Only in very recent years have we realised the importance of listening to our bodies and the dangers of simply trying to ‘work through’ the problem. For those looking to build long and successful careers, it’s vital that psychological and physical warning signs are never ignored.
Not only has stigma on this topic influenced employers, it’s also influenced the way employees think. It’s all too easy when taking time off, to fall into the trap of worrying that your employer doesn’t believe your reasons for taking that time. It’s imperative that individuals don’t allow others to invalidate the signs they are reporting. If something hurts, something hurts. If there is something impacting your physical and / or mental health, no amount of rewording, invalidating or ‘changing perspective’ is going to rectify that. Likewise, employers must remember that “recovery times for the same condition can vary significantly from person to person” (AXA Health: Supporting an employee through long term sickness).
Should an employee confide in you about a challenge they’re experiencing, it’s never constructive to mention how well a friend’s cousin’s wife dealt with the same issue.
It’s also hugely important to routinely seek professional support from specialists, doctors, physios, or pharmacists. In my own experience, I eventually felt fine, but the pain-managing properties of the medication I had been taking provided a false sense of belief. With the advice of my specialist and physio, I decided that until I was off that medication (and in a space where I could more reliably assess how I felt) I would not return to work.
How do you think employers can support their employees in this regard?
Reassurance, flexibility and emotional understanding are key.
Reassurance – Reinforcing support for employees through regular check-ins, ensuring people don’t feel forgotten about. Also providing people with the opportunity to discuss how they’re feeling and / or feel comfortable in asking for tools, resources or equipment to help them do certain tasks.
Flexibility – Provide clear time frames and a level of flexibility that works for both the employee and manager. As a result, both parties can decide which approach is best, either setting tailored part time hours or a phased return to work. This will gently reintroduce routine, while still allowing for essential breaks and time to attend appointments.
Understanding – Employers can lighten the load and stress an employee may be feeling by delegating work and ensuring there is a plan in place for their tasks to be completed. It can also involve offering mental health support, private medical insurance or simply covering some of the treatment costs. All of the aforementioned are a clear way of demonstrating understanding, and if there is the capacity to combine them, even better.
How has your reintegration been, since returning to work?
Somewhat challenging. Keeping to my reduced hours, making sure I take regular breaks and actually committing to taking care of myself has been an adjustment, to say the least. Stigma is unfortunately a very difficult thing to shake, so I often have to remind myself that I do in fact have full support from my leaders and colleagues! If I need to take a longer break I can, If I need to finish earlier for the day I can.
I also frequently need to remind myself I am still recovering from my surgery, and that there is no rush. Listening to my body has been key.
Are there any specific tools or support resources which you think employers need to provide to their employees?
As mentioned, reviewing options and packages around company benefits is a good starting point. There is a wide variety of benefits employees typically have access to via their employer or can ask about.
At IDEX we have access to a wide range of benefits, including, Private Medical Insurance, support with dental and eye care, an on-demand Doctor line, digital prescriptions, physiotherapy, employee assistance programmes and mental health support and resources. If overwhelmed by the options, or struggling with the logistics of implementing them, it may be beneficial for companies to contact an employee benefits consultant who can provide further information as well as frameworks for implementation.
The CIPD notethat some people with long-term conditions “benefit from seeking support from condition-specific organisations, local groups or peer support”, advising that it could help the employer provide the right level of specific help required by individuals (CIPD: Long-term health conditions: Guidance for people professionals to support employees).
When a return to work is on the horizon, Sophie Cox of Mental Health at Work advocates employers come up with a ’structured induction plan’ to ensure the transition from long-term leave to full time work is as smooth as possible, reducing the risk of an employee feeling overwhelmed (Mental health at work: Supporting employees returning after long-term leave). During their time off, a lot may have changed regarding new technologies, projects and business direction, so a ‘gentle but structured refresher’ is essential to ensure a seamless, healthy and productive return to work.
What do you think is going to be fundamental to employee retention and engagement in the next three years?
I believe that if employers look after people in every aspect, whether that’s mental and physical wellbeing, career development, maternity / paternity leave, flexibility or however possible to support individual goals, there will be a cultivation of commitment and loyalty amongst employees. They will undoubtedly appreciate and value both management and the company.
If you’re interested in our available career opportunities at IDEX Consulting and how we might be able to support your career development, you can find more information here, as well as our live vacancies.
McKinsey: Help your employees find purpose or watch them leave