Keeping service sector workers healthy

Shift work, high stress, workload contribute to record number of sick days
By Julie Holden
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/14/2011

Nearly three-quarters of all Canadian employees work in the service sector and these workers experience the highest level of employee absence. Despite this, many service sector organizations do not have effective programs in place to help employees stay or become healthy and to reduce the costs associated with absenteeism.

The service sector is incredibly varied and consists of the following employer groups: retail and distribution; health care and social assistance; restaurants and food service; tourism and hospitality; vehicle sales and service; and office and related services.

The service-producing industries reported an average of 10 sick days per worker in 2009, higher than any other industry, according to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey. By contrast, the goods-producing industries — the other major employment sector — reported 9.3 sick days per worker.

Days lost rose to a staggering 14.1 for workers in health care and social assistance, which is also the category responsible for most of the recent employment gains in Canada.

There are many contributing factors to this higher incidence of lost time, including:

• job-related stress

• a high prevalence of shift work

• excessive workloads

• insufficient training

• highly unionized environments

• a lack of work-life balance.

Work-related injury claims have a major impact on absenteeism. In 2008, the most recent period for which this information is available, 43,470 lost-time injuries were reported in the health care and social assistance category, according to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada. This is followed by retail at 37,450 claims and accommodation, food and beverage services at 17,976 claims.

What can employers do to minimize these lost days and improve employees’ health and productivity? While not all service sector employers are small, there are many small to mid-sized companies struggling with the range of HR and disability management expertise required to appropriately address these challenges. They do not have substantial in-house resources and yet are large enough to require a range of solutions and expertise.

Health management strategy

Employers need to start with a health management strategy aligned with the overall goals of the organization. Open communication with employees is critical and all initiatives must be supported by senior management.

A program that contains clear policies and practices is essential. For example, if a worker falls ill for more than a few days, does she know the policy to follow? Is there a specific policy relating to modified return to work? The worker may not know what job modifications are available that will help her get back to work, which usually leads to a longer period of absence.

An integrated approach to managing occupational and non-occupational absence enhances a company’s overall outcomes. A philosophy regarding absences that “de-medicalizes” the disability claim and focuses on the person rather than the diagnosis has proven highly successful. An employee who is involved in her return-to-work solutions is more likely to return to productivity faster with sustained results.

Once the program is established, incorporating prevention initiatives, uncovering influencing factors on prolonged disability and measuring results enable employers to improve the health and productivity of employees.

Employees experiencing high levels of stress are likely to miss more workdays per year and be less committed to an organization, less satisfied with their positions and more likely to consider leaving. In the services sector in particular, the old adage “The customer is always right” may cause more stress on the job. An answer to reducing claims of a mental health nature is to create an organizational culture with a work-health balance.

Consistent senior-level support needed

As with all workplace strategies, a healthy workplace starts at the top, and this requires senior management buy-in. Effective policies and programs woven into the culture of the company, along with tracking and measuring results, are key.

But organizations need to be aware of potential mixed messages. For example, including a budget for a health and productivity framework is essential. But these programs are often the first to be cut when HR managers are asked to reduce budgets. Staying the course with important programs usually benefits the employer in the end.

Some fundamental ways employers can create a healthy workplace and reduce some types of absence include:

• offering flexible working arrangements

• reducing excessive workloads

• providing clear job expectations

• creating a conflict-resolution program

• offering appropriate training and tools for the role

• ensuring transparency in communications

• offering opportunities for employees to have input.

Employers and employees typically have a common goal as it relates to work absences — to return the employee to a healthy, productive lifestyle as soon as possible.

Julie Holden is vice-president of employer services at Toronto-based Banyan Work Health Solutions. Banyan provides health management solutions for employers and insurers across Canada. She can be reached at (416) 777-1520 ext. 425 or

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