Initiating sickness absence management can result in steep falls in sick days, but unless momentum is kept up and data continues to be closely checked then absenteeism will creep back up, says Vicki Taylor
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Many employers find sickness absence levels reduce greatly in the first year of implementing an absence management system but plateau after that.
To continue to reap the benefits of absence management employers need to look closely at the data they or their provider is collecting.
Examining information such as the length and timings of absence as well as the age and gender of employees can indicate problem hot spots.
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Employers that introduce a sickness absence management system often experience a real reduction in the overall absence rate in the first year only to find that this then plateaus or even starts to creep back up again.
This can be the case whether the organisation implements its own absence management scheme or brings in a system through an external provider. Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: "The danger is that as soon as absence starts going down, it is no longer seen as a priority and old habits start to return."
Line managers might stop carrying out return-to-work interviews, for instance, or stop getting in touch with employees on long-term sick leave to monitor their progress.
Derek Warren, sales and marketing director at Grosvenor Health, a provider of absence management systems, says employers will experience the biggest impact in the first six-to-12 months of implementing a scheme, but believes absence levels should remain steady thereafter. Cynthia Atwell, course director of the occupational health diploma at the University of Warwick, agrees: "If managers really mean it and they are keeping on top of it then [absence levels] should be consistent. As soon as you let go, things can start to [slide]."
An external absence management system can help employers in this task. It typically operates by providing a helpline employees can call to give notification of their absence. This information is then recorded by the provider and fed back to the organisation, including details such as which part of the business the employee is from, their age, gender and the cause of absence. This type of data should also be gathered and regularly examined where employers run their own in-house absence management programmes as it can help with identifying absence patterns within the organisation.
Where an outside provider is used they will usually meet with the employer on a regular basis to talk them through the data collected. Gerry Callaghan, business relationships director at Active Health Partners, says: "[The data] will enable them to analyse absence by department [or] by location, [and] it also will enable them to analyse absence by days of the week, so they can start to see if people are taking opportunistic Mondays and Fridays. We had one customer that had a higher rate of infection in one of its centres and discovered that its water-cooling system had broken down and staff were filling up their water bottles from the taps in the toilet. It was because we had identified the higher rate of infection in this particular centre that they were able to solve the problem."
Warren agrees that keeping a close eye on data collected can alert employers to problem areas: "What is useful is to see that you might have a hot spot in a particular part of the business for [say] musculo-skeletal injuries. If you go and investigate and find out what is happening to cause those injuries [and] if you can re-engineer that job, then you can reduce absence."
Looking at the reasons people are giving for being off work can be particularly useful: "[For example, an employer] might think it is women who are causing the problem, but if they looked into that again it might not be sickness, it might be because [the employer is] not very good at being flexible and therefore when a child is sick they just take a day off," explains Atwell.
Where sickness levels do start creeping up again, employers should re-examine their policies to ensure staff haven’t spotted loopholes in the system. Some organisations, for example, only activate a disciplinary procedure if staff have frequent short-term absences. If this is noted by employees then those ‘pulling a sickie’ might choose to stay off longer to avoid a one-day absence being flagged.
Making managers accountable is another important factor in keeping absence levels down. "Too few employers ensure their line managers and senior managers have part of their performance linked to their absence management performance. Unless managers are made accountable in some way for how they manage absence, [it] won’t be seen as an ongoing priority," says the CIPD’s Willmott.