Sickness absence systems

In order to track sickness absence, many organisations are turning to sophisticated software, using the data to target occupational health provisions. Jamin Robertson looks at what’s available and how models can add to the business.

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With Royal Mail posties driving away shiny new cars as a reward for turning up to work every day, employers are seeing examples of the high priority organisations accord the battle against absence.

In order to keep a lid on sick days, many organisations are turning to sophisticated software systems capable of tracking absence and supplying good management information. Larger firms are using that data to tie in add-on services including occupational healthcare and professional medical advice.

But before taking the technology plunge, employers need to decide what their objectives are. Ann Dougan, marketing director for Cigna Healthcare, explains: “Do they just want to gather statistics or [alternatively] take the burden away from line managers? Some organisations don’t want to be seen actively measuring and recording [absence] because there’s a high degree of respect and trust.”

Of course, some employers prefer to determine their needs with the help of experts. Tony Price, sales consultant for IT firm Snowdrop Systems, says: “It’s a consultative approach. It’s unusual [for an organisation] to come to us and straight away say ‘this is the service I want’.”

A basic assessment of sickness absence is a straightforward exercise. The Bradford factor, which is built into absence software models, is a formula used to highlight persistent short-term absence. But there are a number of other measures (see box right) that can alleviate a big spend on software. But pen and paper calculations are just the beginning. Employers want the kind of fast, packaged data expected of modern technology. Often this ties in with company intranet systems. “In terms of monitoring, everyone can do it [manually] but you probably wouldn’t want to [because] there’s tremendous scope for inaccuracy. You might not gain anything new [with a software system], but it’s much quicker, more effective, efficient and accurate,” says Price. Clearly with unacceptable levels of absence often resulting in disciplinary action, accurate reporting is essential.

Online solutions allow organisations to delegate central absence recording down to line manager level. Price says around 80% of employers are opting for self-service models, looking to limit duplication. Such models typically allow workers to view sickness records.

Keith Lewis, consultant for sickness absence at healthcare provider First Assist, says: “[Software systems identify patterns] across all divisions, so [employers may see that] in finance the boss is a bit of a bastard and may be the cause of the problem.”

But Snowdrop’s Price says sophisticated modelling is also designed to be user-friendly. Managers might be able to access a calendar view of the employee record, perhaps with a colour-coded key illustrating various reasons for leave. The employer can use the information to formulate absence policies and concentrate support on staff with further needs. Barry Anderson, marketing manager at software provider Access Accounting, says: “There’ll always be a level of genuine sickness. When it’s borderline, we want to encourage them to come to work.”

International law firm CMS Cameron McKenna LLP saw absence among legal secretaries tumble from an annual average of 14 days to 6.6 days following a software upgrade. Carol White, senior HR manager, says: “[Having] absence recorded locally [by line managers] has improved efficiency, speed and accuracy.”

Central reporting modules, such as that used by the Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, are also doing the rounds. The Trust aims to cut absence rates by 30%. Staff going off sick phone in to a call centre, which collects data used to target preventative measures, for health promotion and elimination of hazards.

Sophisticated systems come at a cost though. So does the contribution warrant the price tag? Access Accounting cut staff sickness absence to just 1.4% following its software roll out. Price says: “There’ll be return on investment over time. Basically, the larger the organisation the larger the cost savings.”

Absence assessment measures

Individual persistent short-term absence

The Bradford factor SxSxD = scoreS = Number of absence periods in 52 weeks D = Number of days absent in 52 weeks e.g. Ten one-day absences = 10x10x10 = 1,000 One ten-day absence = 1 x 1 x 10 = 10

Individual absence frequency percentage

Frequency rate Number of spells of absence in the period x 100 Number of workers

Absence as a percentage of total working time

Lost Time rate Total absence (hours or days) in the period x100 Possible total (hours or days) in the period