1000 Sick Days in a Month – Staff Railroad Companies into Submission

Sasha Hanau | 26th May 2016

I was shocked to read yesterday that Southern Railways has released figures showing train conductors (and drivers to a lesser extent) have called in sick more than a thousand times in just one month alone. This is without doubt the starkest insight into why companies cannot afford to have unhappy, demotivated and unengaged staff that I have seen lately.

The 1,066 sick days in 32 days are the result of a clearly very displeased workforce over at Southern Rail. It’s come out in a bid for the company to explain to its customers why there have been so many cancellations on its line lately. The absenteeism has caused an average of 80+ cancellations per day and severe delays on a line that many rely on for their daily commute. With over 120,000 commuters using the Southern Trains route in peak hours alone, the dissatisfaction is inevitably rolling over onto the wider community too– no doubt delivering people to work (eventually!) in the foulest of moods.

The cause of the issue it appears is Southern’s plan to re-deploy conductors in new ‘supervisory’ roles which hasn’t been at all well-received. The RMT, Britain’s largest trade union for transport subsequently called for strikes which have somehow led to an unorganised sick-leave strike so the company claim.

All companies have to evolve, make changes and redeploy/retrain staff into new positions in line with the needs of the company and its customers/demand but it seems some part of the change management process in this case has gone wrong. And it is not the first example of an organisation being held to ransom by its staff’s absenteeism. The annual cost of sickness is considered to be somewhere near the £29 billion mark for UK organisations, according to 2013 research by PwC. In a service-led industry, prolonged unhappiness in the workplace is the greatest threat to employers as they simply cannot function without the consistent backing and support of their staff.

As a result of proposed changes, Southern is being held to account by the remarkable and unprecedented level of sickness which is crippling its day-to-day running. Teamed with a reportedly high number of vacancies already open at the organisation, this news is a PR and customer service disaster for Southern who no matter what they say, will I think unfortunately come off quite badly in this employment saga.

Dubbed an ‘unlawful sick-note strike’ by the employer, Southern have used the shocking data to try to initiate a PR-turnaround with its customers. In my opinion however this is only likely to enrage their workforce more, as the company is seen to turn its customers against the staff personally rather than taking some ownership of the problem which is obviously now very serious and deep-rooted.

Facilitating change is a problem for many employees, and in this instance staff are reacting to a change of role which some see as a demotion and a potential risk to safety as crowded trains may now run with reduced staff if necessary. While companies have a right to change roles, and we’ll never know what is going on internally, it’s inevitable that such a significant shift was going to cause serious discontentment and upset. In my experience, the larger the company the harder it is to adapt and change so it’s times like these when extra caution and additional listening to employee sentiment have to be high on the priority list – and at board level. This is not a solely HR issue.

And as if matters weren’t bad enough already, a spokesperson at the London Assembly transport committee went on to comment that “conductors are creating misery for commuters” and “putting at risk a basic condition of employment rights” with their actions – only adding to the furore. While I don’t condone illegal action like fake sickness in the midst of planned strike actions – I can’t help but feel there is a lot of blame being pushed on to the workers, with the company taking little or no public responsibility for the high level of dissatisfaction.

While I do totally sympathise with Southern Railway who ultimately is trying to run the best and most efficient business it can, I have to question the benefit of releasing such inflammatory sick-leave figures. If there was ever an example of why listening to and engaging employees was so important in a service industry – this is one of the best. Leaving frustrations brewing for long enough can cause problems that have a long-lasting and very public effect on your business and reputation. The lesson here: don’t underestimate the power of your workforce and its ability to bring your company to its knees!

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