Buyer’s guide to absence management systems

Absence management systems can help employers to identify and tackle the causes of employees’ sickness, says Nicola Sullivan

Absence management systems enable employers to record and monitor incidences of staff absence and identify what action needs to be taken in each case. The overall purpose of these systems is to help line managers tackle absence more consistently and effectively, and therefore work to reduce it. The most common types of system used by employers are nurse-based helplines, listener services and automated systems.

At the top end of the market are nurse-based helplines, which cost about £50 a year per employee on average. The employee phones in to report their absence to a trained nurse who can give clinical advice depending on the nature of their illness. A notification is then sent to their line manager to inform them of the absence and advise when the employee is likely to be back at work.

In theory, having to report any absence to a trained medical professional is thought to act as a deterrent to staff looking to take a day off work using a bogus illness as an excuse.

Listener services, which cost about £40 a year per employee on average and can be offered as part of an employee assistance programme (EAP), operate in a similar way but employees do not receive clinical advice during their initial call. Instead, a trained call centre representative speaks to each employee to establish the cause of absence and a potential return-to-work date.

Some systems, such as those provided by Ceridian and Employ-mend, direct both managers and staff to make use of the benefits that their organisation offers.

An automated service, whereby employees call in and record their absence, along with the nature of their condition by selecting from a series of automated options using their telephone keypad, is by far the least expensive system, costing from as little as £10-12 a year per employee on average. A notification of absence is then sent to their line manager and some systems, such as those provided by Axa PPP Healthcare, will also notify HR and occupational health services of possible long-term absences.

All providers of absence management systems believe that collecting absence data is crucial in order to set up a system to tackle the problem. Some providers also offer tracking services, which monitor where absence is occurring within a business and its estimated cost. Online systems through which employers can log absences can also provide a similar service.

However, there is some debate among providers about which type of system is the most effective at helping to reduce absence. Paul Avis, corporate development manager at Ceridian LifeWorks, says: “[Our] trained listener approach, backed by absence management software configured to the organisation’s absence policy or procedure, services and benefits, has sustained absence rates of 1%-1.5% over three years.”

Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at Axa PPP Healthcare, however, believes that employers should implement an automated system and spend the money that they save on improving the healthcare benefits they offer for staff. “Apply that money to things that matter, like fast-tracking people into physiotherapy,” he adds.

Product file: Absence Management Systems

What is an absence management system?
An absence management system allows employers to record, monitor and act upon an employee’s absence. The most common types of system used by employers are those that feature a nurse-based helpline or listener service, which is usually run through an employee assistance programme. Employers can also use an automated answerphone service, with employees selecting an option relevant to their condition.

Who are the main providers?
Active Health Partners, Axa PPP Healthcare, Bupa, Ceridian Lifeworks, Cigna, Doctorcall, Employ-mend, Healix Health Services, ihealth, Jardine Lloyd Thomson Benefits Solutions, Jelf Group, Kronos, Medicash, Medisure, Motivano, Norwich Union Healthcare, Unum, Voicescape.