Employee Benefits Awards 2009: Most effective sickness absence management strategy

Crawley Borough Council Absence Management & Employee Wellbeing Policy

With a workforce of 800, this council has introduced a range of new ideas, as well as using good-practice, manager-led return-to-work policies and absence monitoring schemes. The process is strict, with set targets for short-term absences and a separate procedure for long-term absence.

Management training has been implemented and managing people has become a key competency of appraisal. Managers are now proactive about dealing with absence, instead of avoiding the issue, as they used to. The judges were particularly impressed with the community play teams’ example. The council calculated the direct cost of staff absence over six months (total days’ absence multiplied by an average day’s earnings) and were able to show what could have been bought to improve facilities for children, giving staff a true sense of the cost of absence.

The robust framework now in place enables the council to identify further improvements, for example preventative measures to avoid absences occurring. As well as putting resources into staff absence, it also wanted to boost the wellbeing of staff with good attendance. This was achieved through a wellbeing month, which included Tai Chi sessions and the launch of Willie’s Fat Club 2008, a slimming club.

Results saw absence drop from 11.2 days in 2004/05 to 7.5 days in 2008/09, equating to a £300,000 saving. A staff survey showed only 6% did not feel absence was well managed, and use of return-to-work discussions rose from 50% to 88%.

Pictured left: Sarah Barnes, HR policy and equities manager at Crawley Borough Council, commented: “We have achieved this through hard work, from all our managers and staff. I’m very proud.”



  • Browne Jacobson Absence Management
    This law firm of 500 people runs a straightforward absence management programme that is owned by line managers rather than HR. It aims to find the balance between concern for health and the needs of the business without resorting to sticks and carrots by finding the right flexible solution when problems arise for individual staff. It is not aimed at cutting absence or costs, merely to monitor absence levels to maximise operational efficiency. Overall absence levels are below average at 2.3% working time lost.
  • Hewitt Associates Be Healthy with Hewitt
    This firm reacted to the fact that it was not recording absences correctly and that stress-related claims were on the increase. By adopting an effective measurement tool, Hewitt was able to implement a clear, robust, absence tracking process. Reports and measures are made available to managers to help them deliver business results better. In 10 months, absence dropped from 6.2 days a year per employee to 3.4 days, with cost savings amounting to £600,000. Use of the employee assistance programme jumped from 4.3% to 20% and occupational health referrals were up from 5% to 29%.
  • Informa InformMyBenefits – Health and Wealth Programme
    The media firm introduced phone-in occupational health nurses in a pilot programme in its maritime and transport division. Previously, staff with more than four absences in a 12-month rolling period were referred to occupational health – an expensive and time-consuming process. Now staff speak to a nurse over the phone and a judgement is made on whether a referral is needed. In six months, absence has dropped 60% among the 300 staff, saving £40,000.
  • United Response Well-being and Absence Management Strategy (entered by Active Health Partners)
    This charity needs to ensure its carers have low absence rates so clients have consistent care every day. It introduced an external absence management programme that is available 24 hours a day. The organisation also works proactively with staff to help improve health and has used the internet to engage employees, who are not office-based. For example, on Fruity Fridays, fruitbased recipes are shared online. Also, staff were issued with pedometers and aim to log more than one million steps onto the internet. Since the programme was introduced, absence has decreased by 35% – from 15.99 days to 12.03 days a year.