Prevent absenteeism: reduce stress and workload

Stress at work has been occupational disease number one for years, according to research firm TNO. Employees with burnout or illness are not what you want. A long-term sick employee can be a major expense. You cannot always prevent sick leave, but you can reduce the risk of it. Reduce the stress and workload of your employees.

Employees are increasingly dropping out (in Dutch) due to stress or burnout symptoms. In the first quarter of 2023, more than 26% (in Dutch) of the number of absenteeism days fell under psychological absenteeism, figures from the Arbo Unie show. The increase in absenteeism is particularly visible in the 25 to 45 age group. Staff shortages are one of the reasons for the increase in psychological absenteeism.

With a long-term sick employee you have a big problem. You have to continue (partially) paying wages and you are also responsible for the costs of replacement, absenteeism counseling and reintegration. On average, this will cost you about €250 to €400 per day (in Dutch). And according to ArboNeD, the average sickness absence lasts 237 days (in Dutch). Employees with burnout even take an average of 293 days to return to work. Absenteeism insurance is a potential solution, but avoiding sickness absence is preferable. Martine Vecht, professional organiser and burnout prevention specialist, shares 5 useful tips.

The next video is only available in Dutch. 

1. Fulfil your duty of care

Employers are required to provide employees with a healthy, safe working environment. On top of that, employers also need an absence policy. Your absence policy (in Dutch) should outline how you deal with staff absences and what rules you and your employees have to follow. You could draw up an absence protocol with all the steps employees should take when they report sick. And you could make a list of all rights and obligations that you and your employees have to keep in mind. Your absence policy has to comply with the basic rules set out in the Eligibility for Permanent Invalidity Benefit (Restrictions) Act. Also include specific company rules, possibly in consultation with your health and safety service or company doctor.

Some other important considerations:

  • your health and safety policy should contribute to keeping your employees safe and healthy
  • you should minimise psychosocial stress among your employees
  • perform and draw up a risk inventory and evaluation (RI&E). This document maps out occupational risks for your staff and your company and lists the controls you have implemented to ensure that your employees have a healthy, safe place to work.

2. Monitor workloads and working conditions

Analyse your company’s challenges (physical work, night work, high turnover of staff) and opportunities (training budget, lifting aids, extensive knowledge). Each industry has its own health and safety risks that affect absenteeism. In the construction industry (in Dutch), for example, physically demanding work, work at height (in Dutch), and asbestos are common risks. For white-collar workers, on the other hand, working from home is common, making high workloads a big risk. “Working from home has blurred the line between people’s personal and professional lives. People work longer hours and skip breaks. This increases the odds of developing a stress-related illness or burnout”, Vecht explains.

You can find common risks in your industry (in Dutch) online. If you need help, bring in a health and safety expert.

3. Recognise the signs of burnout

How can you tell whether your employees are under a lot of stress? Be alert to the following signs:

  • Physical symptoms, such as back pain, fatigue, and inflammation.
  • Behavioural changes, such as the tendency to withdraw, temper flare-ups, sleep problems, and irritability.
  • Cognitive problems, such as forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, difficulty prioritising, and indecision.
  • Negative or cynical feelings and thoughts.
  • Frequent short-term absences. “An employee who calls in sick several times in quick succession should set the alarm bells ringing”, Vecht explains.

4. Be involved

Intervening in time can help prevent long-term absence. “Employers simply have to be alert”, Vecht stresses. “Most people can cope with short-term stress quite well, but chronic stress depletes your energy reserves. If you intervene within the first 3 months, there is a good chance that your employee will recover quickly. After 6 months of persistent symptoms, they are deemed to have a burnout and are no longer fit for work. It takes an average of 242 days to recover from a burnout.”

Keep in contact with your employees

It is important to realise that employees may be hesitant to tell you that they are not doing well. “The fear of losing income can be like a black cloud hanging overhead”, Vecht says. “Ask your employees whether they will be able to meet their deadlines and what they will do if they need more time. Check how many hours they worked and talk to employees who are chronically overworked.”

Make sure to stay in touch with your employees, asking targeted questions like:

  • How are you feeling?
  • Are you working long hours?
  • What are you worried about?
  • What is your personal life like?
  • What do you need from me to do your job well?

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5. Encourage a healthy lifestyle

The National Prevention Agreement (in Dutch) recommends making employees aware of healthier lifestyles to prevent absenteeism and even death. The fundamental pillars of this agreement are good nutrition, sufficient exercise, and avoiding smoking and alcohol. If you set a good example in the workplace, you are more likely to convince employees of the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Consider taking a 15-minute break to go on a brief stroll every day and encouraging your employees to do the same. You can also offer free fruit or make your building or work site smoke-free.

Burnout recovery roadmap

What if your employee ends up feeling burned out despite your best efforts? Our roadmap explains what you can do and what you have to do to help your employee recover.