Need to know:
- An absence management system must be robust, consistent and in line with the organisation’s absence policy.
- Interrogating absence data can identify trends but it is prudent to investigate further as the data may be masking what is really happening.
- Identifying potential long-term conditions early can ensure appropriate support is provided and help to reduce the length of absence.
Effective absence recording is key to managing any issues and delivering appropriate support to employees. But while an analytical approach to absence is essential, the right workplace culture can make the real difference.
A means of recording sickness is at the heart of any absence management system. Emma Capper, UK wellbeing leader at Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing, says that what works will depend on the employer. “A large organisation might have an automated service that refers employees to occupational health while a smaller one may be more dependent on line managers recording absence,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what’s is in place, as long as it can capture the data and report back out.”
Data collected by an absence management system can provide insight into everything from the health of the workforce to management issues. “Interrogating the data can help an organisation identify trends,” says Adrian Lewis, director at Activ People HR. “Someone might be taking a lot of Mondays and Fridays off, which may require further investigation, but it could also highlight higher than average absence in one department or among those working for a particular line manager. This should be a red flag.”
Organisations need to be mindful of how they interpret the data. As an example, Capper points to an employee with a long-term degenerative condition. “They might be absent for a couple of days here and there but never long enough to be flagged as long-term sick,” she says. “There may also be misreporting. Someone struggling with mental health issues might hide this behind headaches or stomach aches.”
Ensuring the accuracy of the data collected can improve the value of any insights. As an example, many recording systems have a list of reasons for absence, from which the employee or their line manager select. However, a too detailed list and it becomes difficult to identify any trends while a more concise list means any interpretations become too broad.
Organisations can also enrich the data by looking to other sources. Paula Coffey, director of claims, rehabilitation and medical services at Unum, explains: “Pulling in data from other sources such as the employee assistance programme, return-to-work interviews and employee surveys can a much more rounded understanding of the health of the workforce. This could inform health initiatives and the type of support the organisation provides.”
As well as helping to identify trends in workplace health and wellbeing, recording absence data also enables organisations to support those who need to take time off. Although common ailments such as coughs, headaches and stomach bugs are short-term and should resolve in a matter of days, offering support for conditions that are potentially long-term can help an employee return to work much more quickly. As an example, a short course of physiotherapy could help an employee with a back problem return to work quickly and avoid the mental health issues that may develop if left to struggle at home.
Incorporating trigger points into a reporting system can help to identify these cases says Capper. “Organisations should look at when HR or occupational health need to be involved, or when the absence can be referred to the group income protection insurer for early intervention,” she explains.
Workplace adaptations can also help. Enabling an employee to return to work on reduced hours or to a different role may mean they are able to come back sooner.
Another key component in absence management is a healthy workplace culture. Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, explains: “Promoting a healthy attendance culture that supports those with genuine health issues while discouraging unnecessary absence is important. Encouraging people to talk to their line manager if they have a health or work issue can prevent problems from escalating.”
As line managers play such an important role, training can help. “Regular training can ensure they understand the absence management policy and processes,” she says. “This helps them support employees, perhaps signposting them to a health and wellbeing tool or service, and gives them the confidence to discuss health issues.”
Having this supportive culture also means that employees are much more likely to seek help. And as this might even be before they need to take time off, it’s a real winner for absence management.