Inspiration from the North
You both come from the business world. What were your experiences with absenteeism?
Leon Vliegen: “From 1996 to 2008, I was HR manager at a Scandinavian chemical company. There, the medical officer was only called on in exceptional absence cases. It was already pretty clear to me twenty years ago that resilience and agility would be the HR topics of the future. It took a long time, but the Anglo-Saxon world and Belgium are slowly following Scandinavia’s example.”
Bart Teuwen: “I was a company doctor in the Netherlands for fifteen years, and absenteeism is also tackled differently there than in our own country. We medicalise absenteeism too much; sick notes have not been used in the Netherlands for more than twenty years. When I cam back to Belgium in 2016, companies here were clearly not ready yet for the Dutch approach. But the coronavirus crisis has created a lot of movement.”
More attention for mental well-being since the start of the crisis?
Leon Vliegen: “The demand for resilience training has rocketed over the last few years. This trend had started even before the crisis. We Belgians work incredibly hard. Really, we have been at our limit for ten to fifteen years. If we want to maintain our level of productivity, we need to create a work environment that revolves around agility. And being agile is very difficult if you are not resilient. That is why our leadership programmes are focusing more and more on resilience.”
Bart Teuwen: “Mental well-being is also discussed in interviews much more than it used to be. It is an important factor in people’s choice of employer, especially for young people. So it is best to be clear about your absence policy early on in the recruitment process. Or even: about how you enhance employability.”
“If we want to maintain our level of productivity, we need to create a work environment that revolves around agility”- Leadership coach Leon Vliegen
Warm-yet businesslike dialogue
As a manager, how can you start a conversation about topics such as mental well-being and absence?
Leon Vliegen: “These are very delicate topics to talk about with your employees. That is why it’s important to create an environment within the organisation where anything can be talked about. If you - as a manager - haven’t got an understanding of the broader context of an absence issue, it is virtually impossible to tackle the essence.”
Bart Teuwen: “As a manager, be attentive to signs of latent absence. If you indicate - of your own accord - that you’ve noticed something is wrong, you are immediately lowering the threshold for your employee to talk about it. So, don’t hang back, and give your employees the human attention they need.”
This human attention does require some empathy. Can anyone muster this empathy?
Leon Vliegen: “Not everyone is naturally empathetic, but you can work on it. At FLY, we help managers to develop a certain level of confidence during difficult conversations, whether they are discussions about dismissal or absence.”
Bart Teuwen: “We also offer this type of training and we have noticed that everyone makes progress. It is best to remain as authentic as possible in your role as a manager. Your employee will notice immediately if you put on a show, and your feigned empathy actually becomes a trap. It is a great challenge to find the right balance between empathy and professionalism. As such, a warm-yet-businesslike dialogue has my preference as the basis for a positive approach to absence.”
“It is best to remain as authentic as possible in your role as a manager. It is a great challenge to find the right balance between empathy and professionalism”- Absence expert Bart Teuwen
What if an absence policy is not on your higher management’s list of priorities?
Leon Vliegen: “Of course, this is all about context. You could always point out the specific consequences of absence to the management team. They affect the internal workings of your team, but are often even more visible as snags in your product delivery or service delivery. This has an impact on business figures, which is ore likely to grab the management’s attention.”
Bart Teuwen: “Clear communication is crucial, that’s right. As a manager, talk to your management to find out why you’re not on the same wavelength. If your bosses are very result-focused, try to convince them with figures.”
Leon Vliegen: “You might find support elsewhere too. For example, try a HR colleague. Look for opportunities to create movement in your organisation. The battle against absenteeism is more than worth the effort.”
Are you ready for a positive and sustainable approach to absence?
Read more about the absenteeism charter