Top tips for managing sickness absence

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Line managers should be trained in how to manage sickness absence.
  • Employers should track absence data and have clear policies and procedures in place to deal with it.
  • Non-medical absences should be included in absence policies.


Case study: Intervention is on the money for ICAP

Interdealer money broker ICAP conducted a major review of its sickness absence strategy three years ago, involving an analysis of its absence data with Bluefin Corporate Consulting. The review led to the introduction of an occupational health scheme.

The firm, which has 1,600 UK staff, aimed to target absence related to musculoskeletal issues.
Simon Hemmings, head of compensation and benefits at ICAP, says the scheme is an intervention exercise. “We introduced it to engage staff a lot earlier than we used to.”

Occupational health acts as a point of first contact for ICAP’s other health and wellbeing services. “We have a lot of services, but staff did not always know which one to use, whether they needed treatment, a bit of counselling first, or a workplace assessment,” says Hemmings.

Case study: BT connects with staff health

As part of its Work Fit programme, BT Group promotes health and wellbeing to its 75,600 UK staff each year, covering topics such as cardiovascular health, diabetes, cancer, smoking, mental health and physical activity.

The programme is communicated through BT’s intranet site, weekly emails, employee newsletters, leaflets and roadshows. BT also offers its 11,000 managers topic guides and a one-day training course on mental health.

Catherine Kilfedder, group health adviser at BT, says: “We take them through a three-level approach: the first level is to promote good health and wellbeing, the second is to detect signs of deteriorating health at an early stage, and the third is to know and understand all the support resources available.”


Employers recognise the value of minimising sickness absence, and the right policies and procedures can help them keep on top of the issue, says Jennifer Paterson

Musculoskeletal issues and stress are consistently listed as the top two causes of employee sickness absence, but less common causes may be overlooked, and employers need a structured approach to deal with them. Here are Employee Benefits’ top tips for helping employers manage sickness absence.

Communicate with staff

Keeping open and honest lines of communication with staff who are absent from work seems an obvious lesson, but it is a vital one.

David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce and co-chair of the government’s sickness absence review, which was published in November 2011, says employers must keep in contact with staff while they are off sick to prevent, say, a physical injury becoming more serious.

Vanessa Sallows, underwriting and benefits director at Legal and General, says: “If the channels of communication remain open, it is always going to be far easier to get an employee back to work.”

Train line managers

The onus should be on individuals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, but managers also have a pivotal part to play, so they need to be trained to manage sickness absence. Philip Gibbs, head of wellbeing at Roodlane Medical, says: “Educate managers around sickness procedures to be more aware of how they can spot signs and symptoms.”

Employers should also be mindful of the challenge of getting staff back to work if the absence is due to a work relationship issue, such as bullying.

Track absence data

A robust monitoring system should be the starting point for any absence management strategy. Keeping track of data and analysing this is an integral part of managing absence levels, regardless of the reason for them. Frost says: “It might well throw up a whole host of other issues connected not only to the management of sickness, but to the management of the business itself.”

Implement clear policies

The Employee Benefits/Cigna UK HB healthcare research 2012, published this month, found just 55% of respondents have a strategy to reduce sickness absence. Clear policies and procedures, communicated to line managers and staff, are effective in managing absence. Sallows says: “Good employers have clear guidelines visible on an intranet, both for the employee off sick and the line manager.”

Include non-medical absences

Not every absence from work has a medical reason, and not all policies include non-medical absences. According to FirstCare’s absent management database, non-medical absences have increased in the last five years.

James Arquette, commercial director at FirstCare, says: “Employers that do not pay attention to non-medical absences are missing early indicators that an employee is having reoccurring absence, which could be disguising the fact that they are unwell, stressed, demotivated and not wanting to go to work.”

Allow flexible working

Allowing staff to work flexible hours or part-time is a way to manage absence relating to work-life balance issues. Some 68% of respondents to the aforementioned Employee Benefits research have flexible working or work-life balance policies. Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna HealthCare Benefits, says: “The most important aspect is to have positive conversations with staff who have work-life issues. This gives line managers the confidence to change the tone of the conversation to one that is positive and reinforcing.”

Introduce support groups

Many employers offer workplace support groups or communities around health or work-life issues, plus wellbeing seminars and health champions. Some 46% of respondents to Employee Benefits’ research offer health promotion or education.

David Prosser, strategic development manager, health consulting, at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “Responsibility for absence management lies across a number of people in the organisation. Ideally, it needs board-level interest and absence champions.”

Include an EAP

Almost 70% of respondents to the Employee Benefits research said EAPs or other forms of stress counselling help to reduce absence. But an EAP is not a standalone solution to managing stress-related absence.

Arquette says: “If it is not communicated to managers that the EAP is just a complement to stress-management procedures, it actually results in people taking their eye off the ball and not managing stress properly.”

Read also How incentives help reduce sickness absence