Barbecue-itis and the Welsh bank holiday

There is something about the gift of a long weekend that tempts staff into taking an extra day – Bank Holiday Tuesdays almost always equal an increase in sickness absence.

It’s a problem I see all too often in my role at Activ Absence – in fact, one of our largest customers, a national logistics company, signed up for Activ Absence after receiving a huge staff agency bill arising from a particularly absence-prone bank holiday Tuesday.

The company had taken plans to manage bank holiday Tuesday by booking a load of agency staff in advance. Previously by Tuesday morning, agency temps would all be booked out on assignment, so when they’d rung for cover, desperate to keep to their delivery schedule, there were no relief drivers available.

As they didn’t have the tools in place to tackle absentees, they pre-booked agency staff ‘just in case’ every bank holiday Tuesday, and it was costing them a fortune! It’s easy to think all the staff were lazy absentees skipping off to the beach, but it’s more complex than that. Of course, there will always be the usual offenders for absenteeism – but most HR managers know who they are anyway.  The extra absence often comes from everyone else.

The Welsh Bank Holiday practices are to blame, ‘let’s drink more’, ‘let’s have a barbecue’, ‘let’s go out for the day’ as we break routine and increase risk. Drinking more obviously leads to hangovers – the fact it’s a ‘school night’ gets overlooked!  Meanwhile, barbecue food is often not cooked all the way through, and served with dubious hygiene practices, combining to increase the risk of food poisoning, (a serious illness which doubles in barbecue season!).

A recent survey found that 94 per cent of barbecuers had at least one habit that risked the health of their guests – such as undercooking raw meat, leaving raw food (even salad) out of the fridge for more than 4 hours, cross contaminating food by leaving cooked and raw meat together, or using the same tongs for both without washing them in between – then spreading these lovely germs onto the sauce bottle which gets passed around the party – yum.

One in five people will, in their lifetimes, become ill as a result of food being under-cooked or because of the chef’s bad habits. This is a sobering thought as your people are tucking into their delicious blackened (but not necessarily cooked) burgers on a sunny bank holiday afternoon, something the host will likely blame on ‘bad meat from the supermarket!’ Hmmm…..

As if the dicky tummy from barbecue-itis isn’t enough, many of us choose to take Monday to head to South Wales beauty spots like Ogmore by Sea and the Gower, or crowded hotspots like Barry, Mumbles or Aberavon.  With far more cars on the road, we build up stress as we sit in long queues.

Traffic is heavy, and the risk of accidents is increased. If that’s not stressful in itself, the kids scream in the car and what should be a relaxed family day winds up leaving workers exhausted and glad to be home – often returning home with sunburn, because most of us don’t bother to take it as ‘it’s only one day’ and ‘it’s not that warm!’.

We cram all this into one day, then we wonder what happens to ‘business as usual’ on Tuesday! So, what can managers do to reduce the tendency for absence to rise after a bank holiday without being a killjoy?

In my experience, the most effective way to tackle sickness absence is to start measuring and see how big a problem you have, where and why. Educating staff is vital, too.  It’s going to be hard to tell grown adults that they need sunscreen, how much to drink, or how they should be cooking food on a BBQ (though here’s a link to Food Standards Agency Advice just in case!) .

However, you can educate your staff about absenteeism, so they realise that taking that extra day off if they aren’t really ill will have an impact. Absentees are not generally bad people. They just haven’t understood that their absence has an impact.

Once people realise that their colleagues and the business will suffer, absence normally drops by 30%.The Bradford Factor is a good tool to illustrate that. You have to be realistic. Barbecues, over-indulgence and travelling to sunspots is all part of the Bank Holiday tradition and there will always be a higher rate of absence because of that! However, if you tackle the regular absentees, hopefully that will make up for the bank holiday attrition that accompanies the things we all enjoy.

Have a great bank holiday, everyone!

Adrian Lewis is the commercial director for welsh software developers Codel Software and has been advising businesses on how software can best manage HR challenges for more than 10 years. 

Image credit: Hefin Owen