Top tips for reducing employee absence

employee absence

Need to know:

  • A health and wellbeing strategy that has a focus on presenteeism can help reduce employee absence.
  • Data can be used to spot absence trends, allowing employers to better tailor interventions to their workforce.
  • An advice line and training which is specifically for managers can help them better support employees who may be struggling with their health and wellbeing.

More than one-fifth (22%) of employers believe their employee absence rates are higher than other organisations because they do not have health and wellbeing initiatives in place, while 27% cite work-related stress as the key reason staff take time off, according to research by Group Risk Development (Grid) published in March 2018.

With this in mind, what should employers consider when looking to tackle their own employee absence rates?

Advocating a health and wellbeing strategy

To reduce employee absences, employers should first have in place an effective health and wellbeing strategy that is easy for employees to engage with, explains Jan Vickery, head of clinical operations at Axa PPP Healthcare. The strategy should not only target employees who already have health concerns, but should also focus on presenteeism, as well as improving the productivity and health of all staff, even if they appear to function well at work.

“I think that’s where the focus has to be, on those people who are present at work but not as productive as they could be because of their health. The obvious one to think about is mental health, but also physical,” Vickery says.

Employers can create a preventative health and wellbeing strategy by planning a programme that uses expert advice to raise employee awareness and engagement with health, as well as one that informs staff about their own physical and mental health. A proactive approach also equips employees to take action to improve their health and wellbeing, adds Vickery. An example of this is implementing an online health age calculator, which predicts how old an individual is, based on their lifestyle, and suggests ways to become healthier and change the score.

Using data to inform

Employers can better target health and wellbeing interventions to support their specific workforce needs by using internal and external data to inform their health and wellbeing strategy, says Adrian Lewis, director at absence management software provider Activ Absence. This could include reviewing employees’ reasons for absences and the average length of absences to see if any trends emerge.

Data can be gathered through employee absence records, self-certification forms or feedback from return-to-work interviews. Employers can also use absence management data surveys, such as the annual one produced by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Lewis says: “If [employers have] got a baseline of knowing what [their] absences are, what the trends may be across the organisation, then [they] can look at really focusing the [health and wellbeing] schemes to address some of those causes of absences.”

Supporting line managers

Line managers have a vital role to play in reducing employee absence. “I see line managers as the equivalent of GPs in the NHS service,” says Vickery. “Everything has to be delivered by them; they are the gatekeepers, the signposters, the sentinels. A lot of policies and programmes are implemented through line managers.”

Benefits such as a manager advice line can be helpful, providing line managers with guidance on how they can best support employees who may be struggling with their health. They can also advise on when managers should refer employees to health professionals, such as occupational health staff or a doctor.

Equally, line manager training can equip managers to communicate effectively with their team in order to have open and transparent conversations around health. Joanna Yarker, associate professor in occupational and business psychology at Kingston University and director at Affinity at Work, says: “If [line managers] know what’s going on with [their] team members and [they] check in with them on a personal basis, as well as a workload basis, [they are] going to be able to anticipate what’s going on in their lives and health to be able to catch things before they lead to absence.”

Communication is key

A multi-channel communications strategy that helps employees access relevant health and wellbeing information and benefits, as and when they need it, or are open to it, is essential, says Vickery.

This could include face-to-face communications, such as employee briefings as part of an induction or within line manager training, as well as posters, flyers and letters sent to employees’ homes. Employers could also use digital communications, such as articles and information posted on a staff intranet, emails by senior leadership or apps.

Lewis says: “Communication is key. [If employers] have something in place and the staff are not aware of it, they don’t know how to take advantage of it.”

How employers approach reducing employee absence will vary depending on their sector, for example between physical roles and office-based jobs, and the personalised health and wellbeing issues of their workforce.

However, a data-driven, prevention-focused health and wellbeing strategy that is supported by line managers and a multi-faceted communications approach is a good place to start for any organisation.