Managers have a pivotal role in sustainable employability 

31 May 2024


Long-term absenteeism is a major challenge on the current labour market. To prevent it, the best thing you can do as a manager is be attentive to your team members’ needs. ‘Unburden and empower’, says Professor Annet de Lange. But what exactly can you do as an employer?

A survey by HR Navigator of more than 250 large companies with over 75 employees has revealed that last year more than 5.1% of employees stayed at home for longer than 6 weeks. Moreover, this long-term absenteeism is expected to increase massively. Growing absenteeism rates were also reported via CBS, although 2023 also saw a marked reversal. A link with the tight labour market is quickly established: in times when employers have difficulty finding staff, absenteeism often picks up a little.

Employees who are taking a sick day every 20 days can of course still create a considerable problem. What can you, as an employer, do about this? Lots of interventions have been researched and examined over the years. But the main rule of thumb still seems to be: prevention is better than cure. Among other things by being attentive to employees’ needs. ‘Unburden and empower’, or so Annet de Lange, professor of Successful ageing at work, calls it. This involves taking into account people’s need to recover, whilst at the same time looking at where and how they best come into their own, so they can stay in their jobs for as long as possible. ‘Because we’re also seeing that absenteeism arises from a lack of skills and fit.’

Knowing your own boundaries

70% of Dutch employees are planning to pay more attention to their mental health and well-being at work in the coming year, according to research conducted by online pension provider BeFrank. Some 43% also say they want to know and respect their own boundaries, for example by saying ‘no’ in case of work overload or additional duties. In addition, 4 out of 10 want to take time for self-care, such as physical exercise, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, and relaxation techniques.

According to professor De Lange, it is a persistent myth that older people are more likely to take a sick day than young people. The proportion of older people who are absent due to illness is in fact lower than average. However, if older employees do fall ill, this is likely to last a little longer on average than in younger employees. For both age groups, the main complaints mentioned in the case of long-term absenteeism are of a psychological nature, such as stress and burnout. “So older people are certainly not the problem,” says De Lange. ‘Based on these statistics, you could also argue that it is young people who need a little more attention. Which is often lacking in organisations.’

Data-driven working

The professor notices that the overall trend is slightly decreasing. A positive development when it comes to absenteeism. In older people, the average length of absenteeism in a single year decreased from 12.6 to 11.6 days. ‘But that’s no reason to sit back and relax,’ she adds. For example, she does expect the number of mental complaints to increase across the board. She therefore advocates ‘data-driven working’, so that you at least know where absenteeism occurs and can intervene in the right places. ‘After all, it’s not just about wanting people to return to work as quickly as possible, it’s also in particular about paying attention to the people who haven’t yet been affected.’

She recommends conducting regular employee satisfaction surveys to gauge employees’ recovery needs and how satisfied they are with the leadership. ‘That way you can do a lot more evidence-based. I don’t think as an organisation you should think too lightly about this. In soccer, coaches tend to be replaced quickly when a team is doing badly. I don’t see this happening too often In organisations. In fact, they often wait too long.’

Preventive interviews

Sustainable employability is about enabling people to work and remain healthy, motivated and productive until their retirement. In this context, professor De Lange recommends taking an ‘integrated preventive approach’. So not only a free subscription to the gym and a bowl of fresh fruit every day, but also for example: proactive discussions with the occupational health and safety service and using career coaches. ‘We certainly see beneficial effects in practice. A preventive conversation with a confidential counsellor, for example, can have a positive impact. This is where HR, together with the occupational health and safety service and the manager, have a key role to play. A meta-analysis has also shown, for example, that career coaching clearly increases the chance of being able to work for longer.’

‘I believe more in an integrated approach by HR working with the manager, the occupational health and safety expert and the employee. Tools, apps, and workshops alone rarely lead to sustainable anchoring. Sustainable employability depends on factors at a person level, at the level of the work processes, the organisation, and the wider context. All these interacting factors determine whether a particular employee can be employed sustainably in their work and work situation and in their specific context. There are clearly no generally applicable measures or interventions to recommend.’

Tailor-made solutions

Every situation is different and so requires customisation. ‘The best advice I can give organisations is to develop or use a system – on their own initiative – that will help them identify problems and development opportunities and corresponding tailor-made solutions. Because we know at which levels problems can occur, we must also look for solutions at all those levels. A structured dialogue between the employee and their manager would appear to be essential in this regard. And you could also for example discuss prevention during meetings with the occupational health physician, HR professionals, and department managers.’

Will this help employees to stay healthy, happy and continue to work until their retirement, and even prevent them from becoming unfit for work? “Yes, in the long run, it will. This is also clear from a report by the Dutch Health Council,” says De Lange. ‘It’s actually very simple: healthy and sustainable work will prevent absenteeism. So: make adjustments where necessary, and offer a healthy working environment with an appropriate HR and absenteeism policy. Then you can usually really prevent the biggest problems.’

This article appeared on MT/Sprout 30 May