Thought leaders: Academic insights: Flexibility is the key to reducing absence

Absenteeism and presenteeism both need to be tackled by employers, says Ivan Robertson

Every employee needs to take time off sick now and again, but for the employer, lost time is a problem – sometimes a severe one. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Annual survey report 2009: Absence management, the average level of sickness absence is just over seven days a year for each employee. There are wide variations: some public sector employers have levels of over 11 days, while some private sector ones have fewer than four days.

The CIPD estimate of the costs of sickness absence is £692 a year per employee, totalling nearly £1.4 million a year for an organisation with 2,000 staff. Of course, it is impossible to reduce sickness absence rates to zero, but moving from the average to the lowest rate would save a large amount.

The difficult issue of presenteeism raises the question: when is absence justified or even desirable? Put simply, presenteeism is when staff come to work when they are actually sick enough to stay at home. Obviously, people working in this condition are unlikely to be at full capacity and some estimates of the financial impact of presenteeism show it is even more costly than sickness absence. An analysis we did at Robertson Cooper in 2010 of nearly 40,000 people across a range of industries to identify the prevalence of presenteeism indicated that over a quarter of the working population sometimes work with poor health (see table below).

Sickness absence and presenteeism have significant costs – and raise challenges for employers and employees alike. Should staff always stay away from work when they feel ill? Is it ever appropriate for an employer to encourage someone to work when they are ill? What can employers do to minimise the costs of sickness absence and presenteeism?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but research evidence and some recent developments provide some help. To consider the first two questions, the short answers are ‘no’, employees should not always stay away from work when they feel ill, and ‘yes’, sometimes an employer should encourage someone to work when they are ill.

Until recently, the system for signing staff off from work when they were ill had little flexibility and people were either sick – and were provided with a sick note by their GP – or were well enough to work. This has now changed and GPs can use a fit note, which gives a more flexible assessment of what work people might be able to carry out.

This means people can be supported and encouraged to return to work in a phased way.

The research into rehabilitation after periods of ill health, especially for a prolonged period, suggests getting people back to work is the critical hurdle: it is not necessary to get them back fully functioning in their previous role.

The key to enabling both employers and employees to minimise the negative impact of sickness absence and presenteeism is flexibility. Intelligent use of the fit note and a phased return to work for employees are part of this, but the overall picture is much broader and employers need to develop a sensible mix of processes that incorporate a focused and effective attendance management policy (to ensure only legitimate sickness absence is authorised), alongside flexible working practices that enable absent employees to return to work promptly or to take time off to recover properly when they are sick.

Ivan Robertson is professor of organisational psychology at the Centre for Organisational Strategy, Learning and Change at Leeds University Business School



Annual survey report 2009: Absence management, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, London

Mental health at work: developing the business case, policy paper 8 (undated), Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, London

An estimate of the prevalence of presenteeism, Robertson Cooper, Manchester

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