Building a sickness absence strategy

Employers need to have a formal sickness absence strategy in place, both to identify shirkers, and to highlight and resolve genuine problems within their workforce, says Sally Hamilton.

Absence from work costs the UK economy £13.2bn a year, with the average employee taking almost seven days off sick, according to the latest CBI/Axa Absence survey published in May this year. So it is not surprising that many employers want to get a grip on absence levels, both to weed out the layabouts and to help the genuinely sick.

Many specialists have identified three key pillars to a sickness absence strategy: having a corporate sickness policy, setting out terms such as employee sick pay; an effective absence reporting system; and management intervention. Benefits such as private medical insurance (PMI), although not necessarily a key pillar, are useful add-ons if an employer has the budget available and wants to provide them.

Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at Axa PPP Healthcare, says the first step towards putting an absence strategy in place is to devise a corporate policy. “This could be as basic as saying what the employer expects from [staff] and what they will be paid if they are off sick,” he says.

John Dean, head of healthcare and risk consulting at Punter Southall, says gathering knowledge is a key part of setting a policy, as is management training. “You can use surveys and ask such things as do employees feel overworked or underworked, both of which can lead to sickness absence.”

The second key factor for employers is to record absences efficiently. “To do this, they need a robust way of tracking absences and differentiating between types of absence. Is an employee off sick or off for another reason, such as looking after a sick child?” says Dean.

Employees need to feel fairly treated too, so it makes sense for reporting systems to trigger actions, such as setting up return-to-work interviews. “It is important to manage these in a constructive way. Always assume the absence is genuine and ascertain whether the employer can do anything to help, such as with the design of the employee’s job.” says Lusted.

After, perhaps, a third period of absence, the interview might become a capability process, which is essentially a disciplinary meeting. “Managers must make clear how concerned they are at the absences and that it cannot really continue,” adds Lusted.

Management training is central to this aim. “Managers are not medical experts, so they need training on how to deal with it. You can also implement automated trigger systems, such as the Bradford score. This highlights high levels of one- or two-day absences. An employee who triggers this can be referred to occupational health or HR, or an external service that is more impartial and qualified to decide whether the sickness is genuine. If not, formal dismissal procedures can begin,” he says.

Managing absence is not just about handling shirkers, but also about helping the genuinely ill. The third pillar of an absence strategy, therefore, should consider how best to intervene before a short-term absence turns into an expensive long-term absence. Benefits can play a role, such as using PMI to get treatment sooner than is possible on the National Health Service.

“Income protection insurance can also help by taking the long-term sick off the payroll while not leaving the employee to live just on state benefits,” says Lusted.

Health screening and employee assistance programmes can also help nip medical or stress issues in the bud. “Even if you don’t have PMI or a cash plan to turn to, you can decide whether paying for the treatment privately might be a lot cheaper than having the employee off work several weeks,” Lusted adds.

Wellbeing programmes or gym membership have a more subtle role, linked more to the theory that perks help create a happier workplace, with less absenteeism.

Liverpool-based shipping group CMA CGM implemented its first formal sickness absence strategy for 450 staff 18 months ago. A trigger system flags up either three absences in a row or an absence of 10 working days. Staff have return-to-work interviews and, if away for four weeks, receive a home visit. The firm also refers sick employees to an occupational health company for a review, and provides benefits such as a healthcare cash plan, provided by Medicash.

Group HR manager Liz Dowd says: “We wanted to empower managers to manage staff absence. We were targeting short-term absences in particular. We have seen Monday absences drop by 50% and one- or two-day absences have fallen.”

Sign up to our newsletters

Receive news and guidance on a range of HR issues direct to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • A sickness absence policy helps managers deal with absences quickly.
  • Managers need the back-up of an efficient absence recording system that highlights problem areas sooner rather than later.
  • Employers should weigh up the cost of not intervening at an early stage to support a sick employee against letting an absence drag on indefinitely. Such action might include paying for medical treatment privately or providing staff with benefits such as private medical insurance or a healthcare cash plan.