Creating fair absence management systems

Staff absence can be costly for organisations, and a formal policy is needed to manage the issue, says Sam Barrett. But systems and procedures must be fair to both employer and employee

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Absence policies must be fair and reasonable, and take into account both the employer and the employee.
  • Line managers must be confident about dealing with absence and, where necessary, should be trained to do so.
  • Absence management systems are an effective means of dealing with employee sickness, but need to suit the culture of an organisation.
  • Employee engagement with absence can be enhanced with health and wellbeing initiatives.

Taking the odd day off sick to sort out domestic problems or increase holiday leave has become the norm for some staff. With figures from the Employee Benefits/Simplyhealth Healthcare Research 2009 showing sickness absence costs at least 2% of payroll for two-thirds of respondents (with the remainder paying even more), employers must look to manage absence – and staff engagement is key to their success.

Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “The more employees are engaged, the lower the problem. If it is a pleasant place to work and employees feel they are treated fairly, they will want to come into work. Absence is a symptom; poor management is the problem.”

At the heart of a good absence management strategy, employers must have policies and procedures that are fair and reasonable. “It must be a positive contract that takes both sides into account,” says Lusted. “An employer must appreciate people do get sick and need support, while an employee must understand they owe it to the business to turn up when they are able.”

As well as having policies in place, it is essential that line managers are trained in applying them. James Slater, Lifeworks project director at Ceridian, says: “Even if employers have the best policies in place, if line managers are not implementing them, they are not worth having.”

Without training, line managers can feel the matter is too sensitive, so may lack confidence in dealing with employee health problems. Staff can then feel their employer does not care, which can have implications for retention, as well as absence, levels.

Manager training was an area where Crawley Borough Council identified problems when it notched up an average absence rate of 11.2 days a year per employee in 2004/05. Sarah Barnes, the council’s HR policy and equalities manager, says: “We ran a survey of people who had taken time off and one of the messages that came back was that line managers were not particularly interested. So, once we had redesigned our policies and made them more structured, we spent time putting together guidance for managers and trained them in applying the policies.”

This approach worked well. A subsequent survey two years later was more positive, with 89% of staff going through return-to-work interviews compared with 50% prior to the changes.

An absence management system can also help; in the aforementioned research, 66% of employers said this is the most effective way to tackle absence. Several types are available, ranging from fully-automated messaging systems to ones that are staffed by trained nurses. All systems ensure that absence data is captured and appropriate action is taken. For example, if someone reports a back problem, they could be referred for physiotherapy to help them back into work. The online tracking and triggers that are part of these systems can be a prompt for line managers.

Such systems often result in an instant drop in sickness absence, says Slater. “There is an initial fear, which means employees are less likely to do something casual.”

But fear is not necessarily a good thing in the long term, he adds. “Absence management systems are there to support staff as well as stop the lead-swinging. To ensure this, you have to position an absence management system correctly. Make sure it matches an organisation’s culture and its policies on absence, then train managers and provide information to employees.”

More direct attempts to engage employees over absence can also work. “With our play service department, the average absence was about 18 days a year, so we went to one of the sites and talked to them about this,” says Crawley Council’s Barnes. “At the site there is a sensory room, and we pointed out that the cost of absence was equivalent to the cost of setting up eight sensory rooms a year. Explained in this way, staff were on board and average absence fell to under eight days a year.”

The council also used a range of other initiatives to engage its staff. These included holding health and wellbeing months, revamping policies and procedures, and bringing in an on-site occupational health service. “Each year, absence has fallen and it is now at an average of 6.9 days per employee,” says Barnes.

Moving to a culture where the focus is on wellness rather than sickness is likely to be beneficial for UK employers and their absence rates. And with Dame Carol Black’s fit notes, in which GPs outline the duties an employee can do, set to replace sick notes, this cultural change is already under way.