Employee absence is a significant cost to businesses. According to the CIPD’s  2014 annual employee absence survey on average employees are absent from work 6.6 days per year (public sector: 7.9, private sector: 5.5, voluntary sector: 7.4).

To manage absence effectively employers must find a balance supporting employees to remain at work when faced with health problems and to return to the workplace after illness. However, they must deal effectively with those employees who seek to take advantage of the business’ sick pay arrangements.

The main reasons why employees take time off work are:

  • short-term sickness absence
  • long-term sickness absence
  • other authorised absences, including annual leave; maternity, paternity, adoption, or parental leave; time off for public or trade union duties, or to care for dependents; compassionate leave;
  • educational leave
  • unauthorised absence or persistent lateness

According to the CIPD, the main causes of sickness absence amongst employees is:

  • Minor illness (includes colds, flu, stomach upsets and headaches)
  • Musculoskeletal injuries
  • Stress
  • Back pain
  • Mental ill health (for example clinical depression and anxiety)
  • Recurring medical conditions
  • Home/family responsibilities

If you don’t measure absence you can’t manage it

To manage absence effectively it must be accurately measured and monitored.  Trends need to be identified and the underlying causes analysed and understood. However, according to the CIPD fewer than half of employers monitor the cost of absence, and just under half have set a target for reducing absence.

There are numerous ways to measure and monitor lost time:

  • Lost time rate
  • Frequency rate
  • Bradford Factor
  • Absence Triggers

This data can be used to inform a business’ approach to managing and reducing absence, particularly short term intermittent absence.

To manage absence effectively, you need to have a clear policy

In order to effectively manage absence, organisations must draft policies that:

  • Outline exactly what employees will be paid when absent from work
  • State when and who employees should notify if they are not able to attend work
  • Detail when  a self-certificate form is required and when a fit note from the doctor is required
  • Have a focus on assisting employees  getting back to work as soon as is reasonably possible
  • Have the facility to require employees to attend an examination by a company doctor and (with the individual’s consent) to request a report from the employee’s doctor
  • Have provisions for return-to-work interviews

The focus of these policies should be to support those who can return to work by looking to offer, where appropriate, a phased return to work, amended duties, altered hours or workplace adaptations.

Absence must be managed proactively

Fundamental to any approach to managing short term absence is the return-to-work interview. Return-to-work interviews can help identify short-term absence problems at an early stage. They also provide managers with an opportunity to start a dialogue about underlying issues which might be causing the absence.

The use of trigger mechanisms such as the Bradford Factor allow the early identification of employees who’s attendance patterns are becoming troublesome.  Also they provide a transparent and equitable way of dealing with absenteeism.

When absence levels become unacceptable, the disciplinary procedures should be used. It must be made clear to staff that intermittent absence with no underlying cause will not be tolerated and that the absence policies will be enforced. Remember staff are being disciplined for the way they are conducting themselves regarding their attendance at work, and not for being sick.

Where staff enjoy the benefit of enhanced occupational sick pay, that pay should be restricted for short term absences and when staff hit absence triggers.

Managers should  manage the absence levels in their teams. When this happens, absence can be dealt with more effectively.  Managers can often spot early warning signs of potential problems, and consequently offer employees appropriate support or advice before matters escalate.  However, according to the CIPD just over half of organisations train their line managers in the skills needed to manage absence effectively, and less than one third provide tailored support for line managers.

When employees are absent due to illness, an early diagnosis and a clear prognosis is helpful in both managing supporting the employee back to work, and in managing in their absence.  To achieve this, there should be links to occupational health professionals and the employee’s GP.

As mentioned above, a major cause of sickness absence is home and family responsibilities.  Employers should remove the need for an employee to “throw a sickie” in order to deal with a domestic crisis or to manage a family commitment, by providing leave for family circumstances, and offering, where operational feasible, flexible working arrangements.

Supporting employees with a long term illness

According to the CIPD, absence of eight days or more accounts for about one third of total absence, and absence of four weeks or more accounts for around a fifth. Consequently, organisations need a formal framework to support employees who are off work with long term illnesses. These frameworks help maintain the morale and motivation of those who are off with a long term absence. They help the organisation understand the extent of the absence, and when the employee is likely to return. They also support the employee in their return to work. They help the employer avoid potential disability discrimination claims.

When managing an employee on long term sickness absence, the employer should:

  • keep in contact with sick employee
  • plan and undertake workplace controls or adjustments
  • use professional advice and treatment
  • Co-ordinate a return-to-work plan
  • Regularly evaluate how things are working with the employee

The challenge
For many small and medium sized business managing absence can be an administrative nightmare. The requirement to collect, categorise and analyse attendance information can create significant challenge.  Paper systems are time consuming and unreliable. Very often organisations choose to collect  and analyse this data by creating complex spreadsheets. These spreadsheets are often amended “on the fly” as new situations present themselves.

SME’s are faced with the challenge of either creating processes that duplicate data, or creating highly complex systems in an attempt (often unsuccessful) to have a definitive employee dataset.  Very often this data is kept on a complex spreadsheet.  These spreadsheets will often include links to timesheets, holiday cards and sickness records.  Their complexity is such they often “break”, or a “spreadsheet expert” emerges.   When the spreadsheet expert isn’t around (on holiday, on a more important assignment, or has left the business), the data isn’t collected, or a disproportionate amount of time is spent maintaining the spreadsheet records.  Sometimes individual departments or sections create their own records and spreadsheets, and there is no definitive attendance record, and no guarantee that the same formula is being used to analyse the attendance data across the business.

It is not uncommon for these systems to fall into disrepute, and the attempts to understand and manage absence collapse.

Organisations need effective absence management policies. These policies should promote engagement and attendance and therefore reduce absence. Businesses need to draft policies and procedures that reflect their culture and values, and mirror the reality of working in that organisation..  The aim of these policies and procedures is to create a good work environment. An environment where employees are less likely to wake up and think ‘I don’t feel like going in to work today’.  However, most small to medium sized businesses don’t have the expertise in house to draft these policies, train the managers and create the frameworks required to effectively create engagement and manage employee absence.

This article has been posted by Sean McCann, the Managing Director of People Based Solutions an HR consultancy specialising HR Services and Support. If you would like to know more about how we can help you develop effective absence systems, policies and procedures for your business Contact us at: enquiries@peoplebasedsolutions.com







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