Take action to prevent absence

Employers should look beyond the basics and make healthy workplace interventions, says Grimsby Institute’s Peter Barnard

What will be the nature of work in 25 years’ time? A number of factors will undoubtedly influence the working environment including technological advances, increasing scarcity of resources and the work demands of generations X and Y.

These will all have an effect on the organisational structure of businesses. For example, there may be more home working, satellite offices closer to employees’ homes or larger units housing staff who hotdesk on a rota basis or when needed for specific projects, and these complicated working patterns will create a host of issues around attendance and sickness management.

But whatever the future holds for the working environment there are some key steps that employers can take to improve attendance and reduce sickness absence. First and foremost there should be sound HR procedures and systems in place that not only help managers but also make policies on absence and attendance clear to employees. Managers and employees should know what is expected of them.

Managers will need to be trained so that they are competent to manage attendance at work and they must also be given access to real-time information so they can keep tabs on which employees are off sick and why.

Where employees are not meeting their organisation’s standards for attendance at work they must be dealt with. Staff with health conditions requiring medium or long-term treatment or support should be helped appropriately, while individuals with excellent attendance records should be praised. Stakeholders across the organisation should know how their team is performing not just in relation to standard business measures such as turnover and profit but also with regard to sickness absence levels.

If organisations adhere to these points and deal with them one step at a time they will be on the way to managing sickness absence. Of course, we all know that you can have good systems and procedures in place but not necessarily get good results. After all, the management of sickness absence is only one facet of a manager’s job.

As with other areas of organisational compliance, sickness absence management is not a discrete element of a manager’s work but it should be one area in which the performance of the employee, team and organisation is judged. Managers need to take responsibility for their employees and their performance, including sickness absence management, and not outsource this to HR, occupational health or external services such as nurse-led call centres.

At the Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Education we have been paying close attention to the question of sickness absence for the past seven years. We have great individuals in our health and wellbeing team and we have the elements outlined above in place, yet the management commitment to creating good jobs and a working environment that is conducive to a healthy workforce and good attendance at work has to be constantly refreshed.

An organisation that takes the next step of providing supportive interventions – for example, health promotion and care packages, access to activities, gym membership, advice on nutrition and healthy food – is helping to embed a culture in which individuals see the importance of taking personal responsibility for keeping fit, healthy and at work, leaving managers free to help individuals cope with trauma, medical and otherwise.

Finally, organisations that deliver the concept of ‘good jobs’, where there is the right fit between employee and organisation, offer the best prospect for lasting improvements in attendance at work. To get to that point they will need a firm foundation of good sickness absence management and healthy workplace interventions. Employers should go beyond putting in place basic sickness absence management policies and think about implementing healthy workplace interventions and delivering the right jobs for the right people.

Peter Barnard is registrar at Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Educationu†

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Key Points

  • Reducing sickness absence entails:- effective sickness absence management policies
  • interventions to support individuals to be fit, healthy and at work
  • good jobs so there is the right fit for employer and employee.
  • Keeping people fit, healthy and at work is ultimately the individual employee’s responsibility.