Employers are now recognising that home-working can potentially reduce short-term sickness absence…

My elderly mother still refers to an upset stomach as “a case of the BDTs”.  BDT stands for Back Door Trots, and refers to a time when the inside toilet was still only an aspiration for most working British households.

Yet in these more enlightened times the outside privy has been long consigned to history.  Sadly the BDTs – and many other causes of short-term sickness absence from work – have not.

And short-term absence from the workplace continues to present a major economic headwind for employers.

For instance the UK manufacturing industry lost around 5 days per employee per year to illness absence in 2019.  That is an average figure of course (some absences will have been far longer), but it is clear that the “odd day” of sick-leave here and there makes a significant difference to the productivity of any workplace unit.  And poor productivity figures obviously make it far more challenging to be competitive too.

So absence is always a problem.  And right now – as the nation begins its bounce-back from the dual issues of COVID-19 and Brexit – this is one challenge that employers really need to meet head-on.

Short-term absence:  Making a difference

So what can employers do to address this issue?

The CIPD provides a useful factsheet of possible employer interventions that might make a positive difference in reducing the level of short-term sickness absence at any given employer.  And tucked away in the middle of that listing of potential solutions is the phrase “flexible working”.

The CIPD factsheet chimes with a recent survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  The below chart details the ONS findings:


It’s telling that 27% of the employer respondents identified “reduced sickness levels” as a benefit of homeworking, and is particularly relevant as it’s not a subject that has received much attention before or since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the media.

It follows that employers have come to their own conclusions on this important issue, probably as a direct result of the lived-experiment of homeworking that much of the nation has experienced since March 2020.

Two key questions

Indeed I suspect that over the last 16 months many employers have experienced a sharp-decrease in the number of days off lost to minor illnesses.

So why is this, and will it continue?

The “why” is probably the easier question to answer.  Someone who is feeling below par is likely to struggle with the challenges of a lengthy commute and workplace interactions for an entire day.  Whereas the journey from sickbed to laptop computer takes only seconds, and the employee still has access to all the comforts of home that are so often needed when feeling ill.  Of course the employee’s “ill” output might still be lower than when they are healthy, but most employers would recognise that some output is certainly better than none at all.

Yet the bigger question to address is whether this reduction in short-term absence would continue if far more people are able to work from home in the longer term.

There is of course no scientific answer to this question as yet, but speaking as a long-term home-worker myself, I can confirm that I rarely need to take a day off ill.  Indeed the only day of absence I can recall is (ironically) following my first COVID-19 vaccination shot.

And in a wider context I have spoken to many senior HR professionals in the past who have been quietly aware for many years that homeworking generally equates to less short-term and/or spurious absence too.

Reduced presenteeism too!

And the benefits don’t just stop at reduced absence of the individual employee.

Many of those short-term illnesses that cause absence are infectious, and an ill employee attending the workplace obviously has the potential to spread that illness to colleagues as a result.  This can then lead to many more employees needing to take time off ill.

Whereas allowing the employee to work at home when ill limits that potential spread of illness to others.  Such a suggestion might have been ignored in the more macho pre-pandemic management world, but might now be taken far more seriously given our collective familiarity with the need for self-isolation when infectious.

Other learning

Away from the specific question of home-working, employers might also benefit in the future from reduced sickness absence as a result of other pandemic lessons too.

For the collective understanding of the need for simple personal hygiene measures may well reduce the spread of some minor illnesses in future.  Indeed my post “Now wash your hands” from April last year looked at that specific issue very early in the pandemic.  Mask wearing might be another long-term benefit that will help employers reduce sickness absence also.

And finally the better understanding and usage of employer-sponsored employee benefits can also make a key difference to employee health and wellbeing.  Again employers are now more aware of the tools available in this respect, and I hope (and expect) to see many organisations improve their communications and support in this important respect in the months and years ahead.

The reality is that whilst short-term absence can never be eradicated completely, the ability to let people work from home can go a very long way to reducing the days lost and mitigating the productivity impact of that outcome.

So regardless of whether it’s a cough, cold, or those awful BDTs, employers can take some important lessons from the COVID-19 experience to better manage short-term absence in the future.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing



By Lisa Baker, Senior Editor

Senior Editor Lisa Baker is the owner of Need to See it Publishing Group, providing contract news for business and news sites across the UK. Lisa is an experienced HR writer and commentator, editing HR publications for more than 5 years.