Absence issues and the benefits to keep them at bay

Absence issues can involve a complex web of reasons, but although there may be no way to combat coughs and colds, perks can be strategically positioned to help tackle bouts of sickness caused by stress or musculo-skeletal injuries, says David Woods

Sickness absence is a problem that never seems to go away, leaving employers in the difficult position of trying to identify the best solution for their organisation.

They are not helped by the fact there are now numerous causes of absence and a wide number of benefits to help tackle them.

The Kronos Summer absence survey 2007, for example, shows that 62% of staff feel they have a right to call in sick in order to take a ‘mental health day’, while 29% of respondents believe they are entitled to a sick day due to a heavy workload. However, staff who take unauthorised absences could have a negative impact on colleagues. The survey also showed that 22% of staff claim their stress levels are affected by colleagues calling in sick.

Genuine short-term illnesses, such as colds and stomach bugs, cannot be helped and employees suffering from these ailments will often need to take time off, not just to speed up their recovery, but also to prevent them passing germs on to colleagues.

The main causes of long-term absence, meanwhile, are stress and musculo-skeletal conditions. Graham Johnson, operations manager at Bupa Wellness, says: “When it comes to long-term absence, half of people who are off for six months or more will never return to the same job, and only 1% of those who are off for more than a year will return.”

The key for employers looking to construct an absence strategy, therefore, is to carefully monitor short-term absence, and help employees on long-term absence return to work sooner. But in many cases, this can be easier said than done.

Louise Hadland, HR and facilities management director at law firm Shoosmiths, believes the answer lies in a coherent absence management strategy. “If there is no absence management programme in place, a company policy will be disjointed and unconnected to staff, who will not receive clear messages.”

Line managers will often have a key role to play in implementing such a policy. Staff who are not challenged by their superiors, for example, will be more likely to take increased absences, especially if these are not due to medical reasons. “It is not uncommon for individuals to say that they have a health problem when the real reason for absence is not regarding health. Employees might have personal problems but will call in sick as they think that their boss will not understand,” explains Johnson.

Unauthorised absence
Line managers can therefore help if staff take unauthorised absences to deal with personal difficulties. If managers are perceived to be understanding, there is a higher chance that staff will be honest with them about their situation. For instance, if employees are going absent due to a lack of childcare or because they are caring for a sick relative, flexible working arrangements can perhaps be negotiated, even if only on a temporary basis.

Absence management systems, which are run by a third-party provider, can also help to reduce absence. In these cases, employees do not speak to their line manager when they call in sick, but instead speak to a third-party administrator or a trained professional, such as a nurse or occupational health adviser. Not only will employees receive a medical diagnosis and advice on how to speed up their recovery, but those who do not have a genuine medical reason for their absence may be discouraged from taking the day off.

Absence management systems such as these can also provide management reports so employers can carefully monitor the situation and identify any trends developing, for example, if there is a high level of absence in one specific area of the business. Sarah Brown, senior associate at Mercer, explains: “The advantage of these administrative systems over staff simply contacting line managers is that information can be systematically recorded. With good absence data, it is easier for the employer to intervene and effectively manage absence, so long as employees comply in reporting their absence. However, I am yet to be convinced about the extra advantage of involving a nurse.”

Ingolv Urnes, chief executive of absence management systems provider Active Health Partners, however, believes there are advantages to using trained medical professionals in the process. “The fact that a nurse can provide good medical advice can speed up an individual’s recovery. To properly have an absence management programme, [an employer] must understand fully why people are off work,” he says.

Similarly, holding return-to-work interviews for employees when they go back to work following a period of absence, may act as a deterrent for staff are not genuinely ill. The practice may also help to reduce the risk of short-term absences becoming more frequent or developing into a long-term condition, for example, if an employee has taken a number of days off in a matter of months for stomach aches, they can be referred to occupational health or to the relevant healthcare perks for a proper health check. This can help project an image of a caring employer.

Preventative approach
The role of an employer’s occupational health department is also important in minimising staff absence. The information which it can give employees on issues such as fitness, nutrition and smoking, may promote staff to adopt healthier lifestyles, so increasing wellbeing and, in turn, staff attendance.

Taking a preventative approach can help to reduce the likelihood of some long-term conditions from developing before they become a problem. Although stress, for example, remains an ongoing concern for employers as many people continue to work harder and longer, it is often easier to try and prevent absence due to this condition from occurring than trying to cure it.

Gavin Davies, director at healthcare provider HCML, believes stress audits are a useful method of identifying the possible causes and signs of the condition in an organisation.

Benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can be a good starting point for employers who are looking to tackle stress. These enable staff to speak to a counsellor in confidence, and can help to nip anxieties in the bud before they develop into a more serious condition which leads to prolonged absence.

Although the confidential nature of EAPs means employers will not be able to access information about individual cases, some services do provide management reports on some areas, for example, a general review of the type of issues staff are facing.

Access to private care
On the downside, this means employers may not be aware staff are suffering from stress until it is too late. In many environments, there is also still a stigma attached to using an EAP, which may deter staff from doing so.

Another major cause of long-term absence is musculo-skeletal complaints, which can require prolonged medical treatment including specialist expertise and physiotherapy. As employees will often face a lengthy wait for treatment on the National Health Service (NHS), benefits that help to facilitate access to private care, such as private medical insurance (PMI) can help to minimise the length of absence.

Wayne Pontin, business development director at Jelf Wellbeing, explains: “A diagnostic or physiotherapy service using private medical insurance will have a marked reduction in the level of sickness absence.”

However, access to private treatment does not necessarily have to be via a PMI scheme, as Brown explains that some employers may choose to simply pay for individuals to be treated privately on a case-by-case basis. There is the option for the employer to save money here as they will not have to pay a health insurance premium for large groups of staff, although they should bear in mind that funding private treatment can still be costly.

Whatever the cause of a long-term absence, however, it is vital that line managers and employers maintain contact with an employee who is absent for a significant period of time, even though they may often be nervous about doing so. This not only lets the employee know they are valued and missed at work, but reminds them that they have a job waiting for them as soon as they are fit to take it.

Remaining in close contact with absent employees also enables employers to keep a check on their progress and ensure they are utilising all the healthcare perks available to them so that they are able to return to work as soon as possible. Third-party rehabilitation services can also undertake this task on employers’ behalf. “Individuals who are ill, will be keen to maintain a level of stability in their lives and often like to hold on to work as something that is secure,” says Hadland.

So with such a number of options available, there is no single solution to managing absence. As Brown concludes: “Most organisations have good [absence] policies, it’s just that they don’t implement them consistently. There is not one single solution to managing it and it really does depend on what the employer’s absence problem is.”†


78% of employers say that minor ailments, such as colds or flu, are a major cause of sickness absence in their organisation.
40% say stress has the same effect.
10% of employers do not know how many days absence their workforce takes each year.
52% of employers do not record the cost of sickness absence.
59% of employers have a strategy in place to reduce sickness absence.
88% of employers who have a sickness absence strategy in place use return-to-work interviews.
69% of employers think that work-life balance policies help to reduce sickness absence.
66% believe sickness absence management schemes are effective at reducing absenteeism.

Case Study: Shoosmiths

Law firm Shoosmiths has an overall absence management policy in place for its 1,400 employees, which is clearly communicated to all staff.

It uses a trigger mechanism so that if employees are off work for up to five days on three or more occasions, they will have a meeting with management to ascertain any underlying problems. Most absentees also have return-to-work interviews.

The company offers a number of healthcare benefits aimed at tackling absence. It provides stress management workshops for all employees and has posted self-help information on its intranet site. Staff who have been with the company at least five years or who receive an annual salary of over £25,000, meanwhile, are eligible for company-paid private medical insurance, while all other employees are offered discounted rates if they wish to purchase PMI cover themselves.

If employees are absent for an extended period, they are introduced back into their jobs gradually and may be given the option of working flexibly to help them readjust. Louise Hadland, HR and facilities management director, explains: “Because we do not have an issue with absence, we can afford to be much more positive, constructive and proactive in terms of absence management. It could be a self-fulfiling prophecy that we don’t have an issue because of the steps that we have taken.”

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