Gitte Kristiansen: ‘Absence Management Should Be on the Board Agenda’

Gitte Kristiansen: ‘Absence Management Should Be on the Board Agenda’
Companies can do far more in the fight against absenteeism, according to Danish entrepreneur, CEO of Insurance at Heart, Gitte Kristiansen. In her former role as Global Head of Pensions & Insurance at the internationally operating cleaning and facility company, ISS, she pioneered efforts to drastically reduce absenteeism. 

She worked with Danish company Precure, who developed an AI based smart vest, in the battle against lower back pain. As a result, the pressure on the spine and the pain level among project attendants decreased significantly, and their overall happiness and wellbeing increased.
Two years ago, she was elected DARIM ‘Risk Manager of the Year’ in Denmark for this project, and last year her project received the esteemed award for the most Innovative Insurance Programme of the Year from the Federation of European Risk Management Associations. The jury report mentioned ‘an initiative with great potential for other companies globally to learn from’. Stefan Duran from the insurer elipsLife met with Kristiansen to discuss these topics.
‘Have I personally experienced back problems?’ Gitte Kristiansen repeats the question. ‘Like many people, I did have a period of severe back pain, but that was many years ago.’

Can you tell us why you think this topic is so important?
‘The World Economic Forum and UN recognizes lower back issues as a universal problem, ranking it equally important to diabetes and loneliness. In the EU 58% of all workers report muscular issues, that is 115 million people. Statistics also show that work-related physical attrition is the root cause of a third of all sick leave - it is a massive issue for companies. In Denmark alone all sick leave is estimated to amount to around 6,7 billion euro annually.’

What did you do at ISS?
‘As a Global Risk Manager I was naturally interested in our absenteeism on the one hand and our insurance and other ‘people costs’ on the other. From the start, literally on my third day with ISS, I engaged our insurer in the project, and in all honesty, I initially did this to negotiate if the premium could be reduced. The conversation quickly shifted towards ‘prevention’, so our insurer connected me to the Danish company Precure. They specialize in the prevention of work-related lower back and other musculoskeletal injuries with their AI based devices.
The rationale was that absenteeism costs is a hidden cost to companies, but a massive cost across the whole business that is impacting performance and the ability to deliver to your customers. But, who actually has the total overview of all people costs? No one really. I then investigated it - and yes, I was aware that my approach was completely different from other risk manager tasks. Luckily, I had the full support from our Group CEO.’

What did you come up with?
‘Many industries´ frontlines involve a lot of lifting, pushing, odd positions and carrying, which is tough for the body. Wrong and unintentional moves can do a lot of harm. We co-created this AI based vest. We initially tested the vest in a diverse group of 50 cleaners, chefs and facility managers during a 6 week period, analyzed the results and Precure gave us recommendations to improve the workplaces to cause less harm to the body. Then, after some months we revisited the five most impacted colleagues to discuss further changes. The 6 weeks were equal to the period of time that psychologists recommend for the brain to adapt to new habits.’

How does the vest device work?
‘The vest is filled with sensors that collect various data about body movement and posture. Using Artificial Intelligence, you can analyze movements and measure pressure on the spine during work. Through a linked app, vest users can view their own data, and the app can provide interventions: it gives participants specific instructions and tips to change their posture to a more ergonomic behavior, not harming the body. The devices are really cool and they work.’

What did you observe among the people involved in the project?
‘During the trial period, it already yielded promising results and we ended with an average of 28% decrease in the pressure on the spine. That is a lot less pain. This 28% percent was then ‘converted’ to improved performance, which naturally also represents a monetary value for any company. Based on the data, we could also take ergonomic measures in the workplace. The feedback from the employees was very positive, as they learned how their body is reacting and how not to use the body so they could avoid pain or parts of daily pains. All participants found it useful and even fun to wear the vest, as they enjoyed having insight into various data about their posture. The vest is super easy to work with. Some noted that the hardest was to download the app.’

What are the main conclusions you drew?
‘The vest resulted in a win-win situation for all parties involved. The benefits for the employees are evident. They suffer less from back pain, allowing them to do their work more comfortably, less visits to the physiotherapist, more time with their family and ultimately, their quality-of-life increases. Employers have significantly less absenteeism, which is extremely important because absenteeism is a more hidden, indirect cost. It is also good news for insurers as they receive fewer claims, and the payout to claims is reduced. And for society as a whole, it is also good news because prevention is lowering the healthcare costs. Another conclusion is that AI based devices with an educational purpose works. This is the future.’

I can imagine that collecting data might be controversial. Did you consider privacy legislation?
‘We conducted the project at ISS on a voluntary basis. It was easy to find enough volunteers. We informed all volunteers in writing about the process, and all data were handled GDPR compliant. It was also good to see that even the unions were positive; they also saw that this vest could have a positive impact on their members.’

This project is a good example of ‘employee well-being.’ Why do you think this is something that should be discussed in a boardroom?
‘Absence management is not one of the more often discussed topics in the Boardroom. It links to a leadership issue, which in my mind is a responsibility for the full executive team, not something handled only by HR. It would make sense to, once a year, report on absence management, including related costs and initiatives taken by the organization. The responsibility of absence management should of course stay with top management, but it is a fair question from any board, what the cost to sick leave is and what is done to lower this cost. Therefore, I always encourage any CEO to ask for reporting, so sick leave and the underlying root causes can be discussed, including preventive actions to mitigate the overall total costs of the employees.’

You have now left ISS and started your own company, Insurance at Heart. What was the main motivation for that?
‘When I was awarded twice, many people approached me, from the business world, the insurance companies, and people from the healthcare sector. They were all interested in my approach, as it was highly untraditional in thinking. It was rewarding to experience. I think I touched on something, and it resonated to companies that I can advise throughout the whole value chain of Operation, Finance, Health and Safety and HR. My specialized insurance risk management company works with the concept, Total Cost of People, so any CEO, CFO, Chief People etc. can take decisions based on financial facts. As I really loved my job at ISS, it was with a heavy heart that I resigned from my position and started my new company. My passion to help companies understand the technical world of insurance is a strong driver for me. With my new company I want to help companies and their employees – with savings, cost avoidance scenarios and preventive actions which follow from it.’

When would you consider this ‘mission accomplished’?
‘Never. I think there is still a lot to do for connecting the dots between insurers, advisors and companies and what the future educational benefits look like to attract and retain workforce. The goal for that part of my business will be reached when we can strongly reduce absenteeism caused by muscle and joint problems. Another dream of mine is to get more attention to ergonomics in the school systems. In Denmark, for example, we have a ‘money week’ in schools. How great would it be if we also had a ‘week of ergonomics’, where children learn how to use their bodies properly and what happens if they do not do so. I think prevention and selfcare cannot start early enough.’

Do you have a recommendation for the boardroom?
‘I can only repeat my recommendation for top management to put people care and sick leave costs on the priority agenda in future years, as the massive amount of cost is a burden to the balance sheet.  This is why a risk- and prevention culture is the future and should resonate to any top management team. If you can prevent part of the underlying root causes of sick leave, you can prevent your insurers from increasing your premiums, to the benefit of the company.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 02 2024.

This article was last changed on 06-02-2024