UK absence management approach is increasing risk

Employers’ current approach to absence management is heightening employer and employee risk, according to a report by group risk insurer Ellipse and Dr Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University.

The report, Sick notes: How changes in the workplace and technology demand a rethink of absence management, surveyed 1,000 employees and 250 employers. It looked at the cause and effect of sickness absence, employee and line manager attitudes towards it, and recommends five steps towards better absence management.

It found that, while technology has changed the way people work, absence management procedures have not kept pace, creating serious welfare, management and productivity issues. This has led to a failure by employers to deal with the full risks that employee absence and ill health bring to the workplace.

Findings include:

  • 70% of employers rely on non-HR personnel to handle sickness.
  • 45% of managers admit that their people responsible for absence management are not the best equipped to deal with it.
  • 41% of managers say their absence procedure is not followed at all.
  • 80% of employers believe that presenteeism (attending work while sick) is a bad thing.
  • 80% of employees still go to work when they are ill.
  • 50% of employees said flexible working would reduce time off sick.
  • 70% of managers believe working at home would reduce hours lost to sickness.

The report recommends five steps to streamline an employer’s approach to absence management:

1. Ensure there is a clear and simple procedure in place.

2. Use technology to monitor trends.

3. Maintain proactive contact with employees.

4. Consider external expertise.

5. Foster a culture of employee engagement and consider flexible working.

Cooper said: “Affecting all employers and all but the very hardiest workers, illness is just a fact of working life, but it is not always an inevitability.

“We should be trying to prevent long-term absence as much as possible and we can do that in a few ways. Firstly, by looking at ways of flexible working to help those who are able to work, but perhaps not able to come into the office or work set hours.

“Secondly, we need to encourage employees to not feel obliged to come into work when they are ill, as we know a culture of presenteeism is damaging.

“In the longer term, employers can address absence by ensuring that they do not instill a culture of long working hours, which ultimately lead to demoralised staff and increased sickness, and by training line managers to be fully able to deal with absence management rather than leaving it to chance.

“A few small actions can make a big difference to absence and I urge employers to ask themselves honestly whether their current process is fit for purpose.”

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