I remember a company I used to work for. We had one particular depot where Mondays were always a difficult day. You went to work full of excitement for the start of the week to be almost assaulted with a greater than normal workload and number of issues because customers had let their stock dwindle over the weekend coupled with numerous staff fancying a longer weekend, a shorter working week or they had been out the night before and were suffering.I joined that company from a much larger company where it was normal practice to give staff 20 sick days paid per year. The company I joined gave four days! I was horrified. However within two months, part of me, thought four days was four days too many! The company had no HR and no system for actively tackling and reducing absenteeism other than on the fifth such absence you didn't get paid!
So in this blog I am going to be discussing absenteeism, its management and control. I am considering absenteeism to be the deliberate, unauthorised, reptitive or habitual absence from work of an employee.
The Consequences of Absenteeism
Most employers expect staff to take or miss a certain number of days through absence per year. However, excessive days can cause quite a lot of disruption as well as a loss of productivity, profits and morale. The disruption is acutely felt by SME’s never mind the extra stress and extra workload caused for the absent staff member’s colleagues who are actually in work.
Most Common reasons for Absence
There are many causes of absence from work. These can include:-
- Stress or Burn out
- Acute medical conditions
- Mental Health issues
- Back and muscle pain
- Minor illnesses such as colds
- Work related accidents or injuries
- Bullying or harassment
- Home or family responsibilities
- Low morale or Disengagement
- Job hunting stemming from one of the above
- Partial absence, going missing during a shift or turning up late, going home early
Whilst researching this blog I came across a report published in February 2014 by The Office for National Statistics. Some of the key facts contained therein were:
- 131 million days were lost due to sickness absences in the UK in 2013 this was down from 178 million days in 1993.
- Minor illnesses were the most common reason given for sickness absence but more days were lost to back, neck and muscle pain than any other cause.
- Sickness absence rates have fallen for both men and women since 1993 with men consistently having a lower sickness absence rate than women.
- Sickness absence increases with age but falls after eligibility for the state pension.
- Sickness absence has fallen for all age groups since 1993, but has fallen least for those aged 65 and over.
- Lower sickness absence rates in the private sector but the gap with the public sector has narrowed over past 20 years. Of the larger public sector organisations sickness rates are highest for those working in the health sector.
- Self-employed people are less likely than employees to have a spell of sickness.
- Largest workforces report highest sickness levels.
- Sickness absence was lowest for managers, directors and senior officials.
The full report makes very interesting reading and I am quite keen to find out when the next full report will be published to see whether the trends continue.
Even though absences are falling the total cost to UK business is a huge figure. In 2011 PWC in their report called “The Rising Sick Bill Costs...” quoted £29bn per year whereas in the CBI/Pfizer report in 2013 they quoted £14bn see references below. Now, even if neither of these are spot on and the true figure is somewhere between the two it is still an enormous financial number!
Ways to manage absence
Absence is very difficult to manage and a tricky problem to start to tackle. You cannot set individual parameters and some absences are completely legitimate whereas others are just excuses! Not many SME’s have on-site medical staff to assess the veracity of an employee’s claims to sickness. As an employer you could always insist your staff visit doctors and get a certificate. Is that reasonable? As an employer there’s also the balance to be met between encouraging sick employees to have time off or letting them carry on and infect other staff, potentially leading to further sick days.
As well as having a good absence management policy some companies use the following to help manage staff absenteeism:
- incentive schemes of attendance bonuses for not taking sick days
- Bonuses schemes or payment of days not used
- Health Insurance as part of their package
- Time off in lieu or flexi working
In my opinion, you do need a good absence management policy as well as strategies in place to deal with short term absences, habitual absences and long term sickness or illness that are clear and easy to understand for all your staff. These need to be within the company handbook and the terms and conditions of employment which should be available to read any time. Making these available through a staff portal so that they can be checked any time can also act as a deterrent! Use a cloud based system that is a time and attendance system that also records and monitors absences from work including sickness, training, unauthorised absence and holiday. Choose one that has its own self service staff portal so that when a staff member logs on he can see his absence record for the year to date. This can act as an additional deterrent. Most staff, when looking at their absence calendar, would realise that if they can easily spot that the last five Mondays are highlighted absent, the same fact is obvious to management. They will also realise that management will be able to spot that there was a trend of habitual unauthorised absence.
I would recommend that staff have to ring in and speak to a senior manager or director when they are taking a day off sick and that they also have to attend a return or back to work interview for each absence or period of absence.
This should ensure that many staff will have second thoughts about taking habitual absences knowing that they are going to have to sit in front of HR or management the next day, to justify or explain the day they have just taken off.
In my last article about Absence Tracking and Management I referred to and discussed The Bradford Factor. Lots of companies use this to measure the acceptability and disruption of absences and whether disciplinary action should be taken.
As a manager or executive of a business it is important to understand the correct procedures and how to deal with absences in general but to understand the reasons or motivating factors for each member of your team behind any habitual absence in order to effectively manage and deal with it. Understanding the reasons behind these absences may well uncover a failure or lack of control in other areas that require further action such as harassment, bullying, family or medical issues. If this is the case then they need to be dealt with in a fair and consistent way with empathy.
here is no magic answer to managing sickness or absences within the workplace but a very good start is to track and monitor them before trying to establish the reasons behind them. From my experience I would recommend considering some or all of the following to help you manage absence:-
- Clear easy to understand procedures, terms & conditions
- A comprehensive employee handbook that’s accessible at all times
- A good cloud based system that monitors and reports all types of absence
- The monitoring system has visibility, transparency & a self service portal
- Person to person phone calls if off sick and return to work interviews
- An incentive or conversion scheme for unused sick days
- Accident and sickness insurance and Keyman Insurance cover
The ACAS website offers some great advice on absence management.