Don’t run down heavy monitoring

Line managers can be a valuable knowledge base to help curtail long-term absence, as organisations look to trigger points to monitor recovery, says Nick Golding.

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Periods of genuine long-term sickness absence can be just as much of a problem for employers as bogus short-term absences. Not least because, after a certain length of time, it can be difficult for employees to overcome the psychological barrier of returning to work.

Employers looking to tackle long-term absence can choose from several different approaches. Firstly, benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can be used proactively to help staff address certain issues before they escalate into the cause of a long-term absence. Stress or workplace bullying, for example, can be identified and addressed through the counselling and advice service available through an EAP before an employee becomes absent from work.

Once employees are off sick, however, employers will be keen to help them return to work as soon as possible. To accelerate this process, products such as private medical insurance, which help individuals to access medical treatment more quickly, can be extremely useful.

Also available are third-party administered rehabilitation services that work alongside an organisation’s human resources and occupational health departments to help reduce the length of an absence.

Leonie Nowland, head of return-to-work services at ICAS, says: "The product we provide involves removing the barriers that prevent people from returning to work and also helping those employees who may be showing signs of going off work through lateness or changes in behaviour."

Providers will often identify what the organisation already offers to staff in the way of relevant benefits, then work out what they can supply on top in the form of an outsourced rehabilitation service.

Alex Jones, commercial director at Norwich Union Occupational Health, explains: "Our rehabilitation programme has counselling and physiotherapy for returning employees, but it is also important that we work with the organisation and signpost (any) other relevant benefits such as employee assistance programmes and private healthcare."

Once a rehabilitation programme is in place, employers can start to manage the number of employees going off sick and hasten the return of the absent.

Alan Aldridge, founder of FirstCare, explains: "To have a mechanism in place whereby an employee can be sent for treatment privately, as opposed to having to wait six weeks for an NHS appointment, may cost £400, for example, but it will save the company considerable workplace cost and disruption." The knock-on effect of using these tools and cutting absence are further reductions in the cost of benefits such as income protection, which will be kept to a minimum if organisations can manage long-term absence effectively.

However, long-term absence is a complex matter, and involves more than just putting the correct tools in place. There is also a great deal that employers can do besides offering the various products and schemes that are available.

Organisations can set out to manage long-term sickness absence by first putting in place a policy around sickness absence and ensuring that all members of staff are aware of it by posting it on the intranet or through some other form of communication.

Developing such a policy may involve producing guidelines setting out who employees should contact and when in the event of them being off work sick, or becoming ill in the workplace.

"You need to have a framework of triggers, saying for instance, (that after) 20 days absence (employees) will be referred to occupational health," explains Aldridge.

However, employers must ensure that they don’t rely too heavily on these trigger points and risk neglecting their powers of observation, as early intervention is a major key to preventing long-term sickness absence.

"Employers also need to be able to identify when employees are having difficulty at work. Often line managers notice that an employee is off sick but do nothing until the trigger point is tripped, but early intervention is essential," explains Nowland.

Once focused on taking early action, employers will have the opportunity to record data, which is essential for organisations to gain a thorough understanding of why long-term absence is an issue and what specifically is causing it.

"Through effective data, employers can locate pockets of high absence levels and, from this, can try to understand why absence is high.

"It might be that a lifting policy has not been reinforced or communicated properly, or staff in a law firm working on certain projects may be suffering from high stress or anxiety levels," says Aldridge.

And, once employees are away from the workplace there needs to be an effective channel of communication opened up by their employer, as this can have a huge effect on when an employee returns to work and if their absence will be repeated.

Paul Roberts, strategic director at IHC, explains: "We have had situations in the past whereby employers don’t talk to absent employees for six months, by which time you’ve got no chance in helping somebody return to work if they are in a bad place."

Employers need to find out how staff would prefer to be contacted, when and by whom so that it does not seem intrusive. In some cases, employees may prefer to contact the company themselves to give updates on their recovery.

Louise Hadland, human resources and facilities manager at law firm Shoosmiths, says: "We ensure we have accurate records if employees are off. For something like four-to-six weeks we would actually go and visit the employee, and before this maintain contact via the telephone."

However, all forms of contact are agreed beforehand with staff, so there are no surprise visits. "We would never say to staff that we will be round to see them after a certain amount of time. That would be an infringement," explains Hadland.

Maintaining this contact also helps employees to stay in touch with their place of work, so that their return, whether it be after four weeks or six months, is not as an intimidating a process as perhaps it could be.

Many employers look to work with staff during their absence to try to identify ways to make their return easier.

Graduated hours, where the time spent at work is built up over a period of time, is one recommendation.

"The return to work is a vital stage and we are literally prepared to listen to anything, from (staff coming back) one day a week to just coming in on a Saturday when it is quiet," explains Hadland.

This should be accompanied by a return-to-work interview, which is an opportunity for an organisation to not only ensure that employees are comfortable being back at work but also to delve deeper into the core of the problem and properly understand why they were away from work for a period of time.

"When they return it is not just [a case of saying] ‘good to see you back’, but [questioning] workload and whether the employee is coping with work and at home," says Nowland

Factors to consider

Which benefits do you offer? Benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and occupational health services can help to reduce absence, while products such as private medical insurance can accelerate the return-to-work process.

Do you have a policy on abscence? Unless employees know what is expected of them while they are off sick, contact will be lost and inevitably absence begins to spiral out of control. Setting trigger points for managers to begin monitoring the situation more closely will create boundaries that allow absence to be managed. Do you accurately record absence data? By being strict about recording absence, an organisation can begin to obtain a picture of its absence patterns, such as where it is occurring and the main causes of it.

Are you line managers being utilised? Line managers may have better knowledge of small pockets of employees, the work they are doing and their health at work. This information could be vital in preventing long-term absence at an early stage.

Case Study: City of York Council

The City of York Council cites an absence management system and support from senior management as the reasons behind its reduction in sickness absence levels from 13.5 days per employee recorded between 2004 and 2005 to 12.5 days between 2005 and 2006.

Stephen Forrest, HR business development manager, explains: "The scheme on offer must play a role in managing sickness absence but without backing from senior management it won’t mean anything."

Forrest is keen to use the nurse-manned absence management system provided to the council by Active Health Partners as a preventative measure.

"We don’t want to just wait for the [absence] to begin and become long term," he explains.

The local authority is also taking part in a long-term project with nine other local councils in the north of England to gain a better understanding of why absence levels are high.

The project will focus on the causes of absence and whether certain management practices can help to reduce absence more than others.