How employee health data can help inform an absence management strategy


Need to know:

  • Employers can look for patterns in their data, including higher levels of absence in a particular department or spikes in certain types of absence.
  • They can investigate instances where an employee has higher absence rates because this could be caused by illness or personal issues such as elder care, which may require support.
  • An open, supportive culture can be created that enables employees to be honest about the reason they need time off.

Absence management systems can help organisations adopt a consistent approach to tackling this workplace issue.

As well as giving a view of the extent of the problem, the data from these systems can be used to shape wellbeing and absence strategies.

Doing this brings significant benefits, says Neil Pickering, marketing manager at Kronos Systems: “Data from absence management systems allows organisations to create fair and consistent policies that support their staff. This leads to less absence and, more importantly, happier and more engaged employees.”

Data range

All sorts of data can be sourced from these systems. As well as information about the number of days lost to absence, organisations can access details on the reason for absence; its duration; which areas of the business have the highest amount of time off; and an individual employee’s absence record.

Recording the right data is key. This could mean avoiding having too many categories for types of absence, says Beate O’Neil, head of wellness consulting at Punter Southall Health and Protection Consulting. “Be selective as this will make it easier to identify any spikes,” she says. “If [an employer] picks too many, [it] risks ending up with one or two of each, which is fairly meaningless,” he adds.

Organisations can also supercharge their insight by pulling in additional data. Simon Crew, consultant at Buck Consultants, recommends factoring in claims information from health benefits such as private medical insurance (PMI) and group income protection, employee engagement surveys and details on demographics and seniority. “This will give a much better idea of what’s going on,” he adds.

Data analysis

Analysing the data can help to highlight issues across the workforce. “Look for trends,” says Pickering. “Take overall absence figures into account but also look by location, department, manager and so on to see if it shows higher rates or more of a particular type of absence.”

For example, one employer found that workers in one of its warehouses were experiencing a high rate of musculoskeletal absence. Further investigation found that a new process was causing them to twist more, resulting in back problems.

Adrian Lewis, director of Activ Absence, has also seen problems highlighted by drilling down into the data. “One client’s sales team had absence levels that were higher than average,” he explains. “When it looked into it, it found the targets were unachievable, which was leading to more stress.”

Data on individual employees can also be worth exploring. Where someone is taking repeat absence it could be a health issue but it might also be due to a relationship problem or a child or elderly parent needing care.

It can also highlight disciplinary issues. John Ritchie, chief executive of Ellipse, explains: “Repeat absence could indicate someone using sickness as an excuse for some extra days off. This can affect other employees so it’s important to take appropriate action.”

Shaping absence strategies

By identifying the absence issues affecting a workforce, it is possible for an employer to shape absence and wellbeing strategies to suit its needs. This could include training sessions to minimise musculoskeletal problems or help line managers identify stress; flu jabs to reduce this type of absence; and disciplinary procedures for repeat sickies.

Flexible working can also be an option. “[Employers need to] think about how [they] can be flexible, perhaps with different hours or allowing employees to work from home,” says Lewis. “It’s a great way to support employees.”

Other healthcare benefits can also be integrated to help manage absence more effectively.
“[Employers] can set trigger points within an absence system for when a particular type of absence is referred to a benefit such as an employee assistance programme, occupational health or income protection,” says O’Neil. “Early intervention can reduce absence and keep employees well and in work.”

But while data can bring healthcare strategies to life, its value is very much dependent on the culture of the organisation. “Employees need to feel they’re able to tell [their employer] they have a problem otherwise they’ll just call in sick anyway,” says Crew. “Creating a culture where they feel supported is essential and will bring benefits to [the employer] and [its] employees.”

FleetmaticsWEBFleetmatics uses data to revise health and wellbeing strategy 

The power of data is well understood by Fleetmatics, a global organisation specialising in developing fleet management software. But, when Michael Arkins joined as HR manager in 2012, the organisation was failing to take full advantage of its own data. “A mixture of spreadsheets and forms were being used to record absence,‚ÄĚ he explains. ‚ÄúThis meant there was no visibility around absence so it just wasn’t taken very seriously.”

To address this, he introduced an automated absence management system provided by Activ Absence, for the 320 employees based across the six countries, including the UK and Ireland, for which he is responsible. This allows employees to log absence and holidays but also enables Arkins to gain insight into what is happening across the workforce. “We produce bi-monthly reports looking at a variety of different statistics, including the number of days and cost of absence, but we also look for any trends in departments, types of illness, an individual’s record and so on,” he explains.

On the back of data from the system, Arkins has introduced a number of initiatives to support the organisation‚Äôs wellbeing and absence strategies. These include a revised sick-pay policy, a healthcare plan that includes private medical insurance and cash plan benefits for its employees in Dublin, and flexible-working options to allow employees to strike a balance between their work and home lives. “The data enables us to spot issues across our workforce and take steps to address them before they escalate,” he adds. “It also means we have the metrics to support our business case and, by continuing to monitor the data, demonstrate the return on investment.”

Webb-DAvid-Acas-2013WEBViewpoint: Absence management policies should provide clarity

Keeping accurate records of staff absence and effectively managing those absences are essential in running a successful organisation.

A small business should, as a minimum, log when individual staff are off ill or absent for an unauthorised reason, for example, because of an unforeseen family caring responsibility.

A larger employer should be able to do more with its data on absence, such as collating and analysing the information to build a picture of how much time the organisation is losing through unauthorised absence; where and when absence is occurring; and how often individual employees are absent.

The analysis may show up patterns or matters that need investigating further. For example, why is a particular employee off on so many Mondays? Another employee is off a lot with stomach upsets: is there a factor the employer is unaware of, but should know about?

However, most managers recognise that facts and figures are only the start of the matter. Handling an absence with the employee can often require a lot of skill, tact and sensitivity.

This is why the organisation‚Äôs absence management policy is so important. It should make clear to employees what is expected of them if they are on unauthorised absence and the ‚Äėabsence triggers‚Äô ‚Äď the number of days‚Äô absence when managers consider warnings, and possibly dismissal, unless attendance at work improves.

The policy should also make clear to managers what is expected of them, and the rules and procedures they should follow in dealing with these issues in a fair and consistent way.

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It should also make clear that some absences can be particularly delicate matters. For example, long-term absence and absence linked to a disability.

David Webb is guidance writer for Acas