Absence management: Out of sight, out of mind

Swine flu may yet not prove as long-lasting or economically damaging as the global recession, but as a trigger for sickness absence, the impact of initial media coverage of the epidemic on the working population was both immediate and marked.


Figures from absence management consultancy FirstCare, which records absence rates for 70,000 public and private sector workers, show there was an 8.2% rise in the number of staff starting an absence related to cough/cold/flu-like symptoms on the first Monday after news of the epidemic broke. This is a trend which, according to chief executive Aaron Ross, “closely matches the initial stages of the Norovirus stomach bug outbreak in January 2007, where we saw a spike in gastrointestinal absences related more to anxiety rather than to the virus itself”.


Be it man or swine flu though, the problem of at least some staff using a sniffle to ‘throw a sickie’ is an expensive one for employers. The Institute of Payroll Professionals warned that unauthorised absence can have a major impact on a business’s bottom line and a “ruinous effect” on a firm’s productivity. Lindsay Melvin, chief executive of the IPP, says: “Staff absence can cost employers considerable amounts of money, and businesses need to put measures in place so that they can gain a true insight into absence patterns and manage them appropriately.”


The figures are stark. Despite costing the UK economy £13.2bn per year, up to four in 10 employers have no sickness absence management policy. FirstCare’s Ross believes that too many organisations bury their heads in the sand rather than examine the reasons for persistently empty desks, while others mistakenly assume that all absentees are malingerers.


“Our strategy is to focus on a return to health rather than a return to work, and to concentrate on the underlying cause of absence, even when it’s a personal or domestic issue,” he says. “A refusal to assume that all absences are down to laziness is the only way to earn the trust of staff and to encourage them to be honest about what’s going on in their lives.”


Other firms have achieved impressive results by training line managers. In 2007, AXA PPP piloted an automated telephone-based sickness absence recording and reporting service (SAM) in conjunction with BT, superseding a legacy system that required line managers to physically input details of staff absence.


SAM revealed widespread under-reporting of absence and once in place, saw the true figure rise from 3.5% to 4.1%. Plagued by persistent poor absence levels, the corporate sales department underwent an intensive programme of line manager training in positive attendance management (PAM), underpinned by a desire to make the department a great place to work.


The results were striking. Within eight months of completion of PAM training, absence levels in corporate sales fell by half to around 2%, where they have remained ever since. In 2008, the department achieved savings of £58,000 in the cost of covering lost working days.


Although FirstCare recorded a direct correlation between bad news stories about the economy and an outbreak of coughs, colds and flu – culminating in a spike in absences around the time of the Lehman Brothers collapse last September – other organisations have seen record attendance in recent weeks, spurred by stories of redundancies.


“It’s no coincidence that when bad headlines dominate, peoples’ immune systems are lowered and they tend to have more time off work, but we may also have the problem of people fearful of losing their jobs going into work, being unproductive, and also passing their illnesses onto others,” says Ross.


The subtle changes in causes of absence are also highlighted by Jessica Colling, product manager at workplace health consultancy Vielife.


“One of the biggest challenges with sickness absence is to recognise that relatively easy-to-deal-with problems like musculoskeletal disorders are being overtaken in terms of lost productivity by anxiety, depression and stress,” she says. “Mental health issues are far more difficult for HR to grapple with.”


While many employers may believe that they are cursed by persistent malingering, Dr Steve Boorman, chief health adviser to Royal Mail and an enthusiastic devotee of the organisation’s new £350,000 rehabilitation centre for sick staff, has his doubts.


“I have met very few genuine malingerers and tend to believe that most people would rather go to work than not,” he says. “But it’s important for employers to get under the skin of the employee who keeps having time off. The real reason may well be unhappiness at home or burdensome caring responsibilities, but in my experience, it’s rarely a matter of swinging the lead.”


Royal Mail’s investment in rehab, as well as absence management training for line managers and other wellness initiatives, saw absence rates slashed by 25% between 2004 and 2007 and saved more than £227m in terms of direct costs.


Steve Pointer, head of health and safety policy at the employers’ organisation EEF, believes that while the recession is triggering a sharp rise in concern over absence among organisations, understanding is patchy.


“Unlike other businesses, manufacturers are well-placed to record precise absence data simply by looking at gaps in production, but there appears to be a large chasm opening up between those that record trends and attempt to identify reasons [behind them], and those who do neither,” he says.


The EEF has spearheaded the notion of the ‘fit note’– a replacement for the sick note which concentrates on what sick employees can do (Boorman gives the example of shorter, lighter postal rounds, for example), rather than what they can’t.


While the fit note, first mooted in 2006, has received wholehearted support from the government, its roll-out among GPs, whose poor handwriting is at least partly responsible for the innovation, will take longer to establish.


Pointer agrees that uncertainty over what constitutes harassment when someone is off sick is a problem. “Depression is becoming a common cause of long-term absence and it needs tackling,” he says. “We know for sure that it may be best to go in to work and interact with others when you’re really down, but many employers are frightened of being accused of harassment, even if all they want to do is suggest light duties and a bit of companionship.”


Boorman believes that regular contact is nevertheless vital. “Our line manager approach to absence means that managers contact the sick member of staff quickly and stay in contact until the absence is resolved. We have trained them to take a sympathetic, rather than a hectoring approach.


“Contact from work would certainly have been seen as harassment by staff and by unions just a few years back, but now it’s viewed as caring about people and making them feel wanted.”


In all, 3,000 Royal Mail line managers will be trained to use a new desktop tool that allows them to both help make decisions about absence and conduct back-to-work interviews.


What Royal Mail will not do is farm out the entire absence management system to a third party. “When a postman can’t deliver, there are significant financial costs to the business as well as costs to our reputation for good public service,” says Boorman. “But I believe that our own HR systems are quite sophisticated enough to collect data on the causes of absence, and I believe it would be wrong to abrogate our responsibility.”


Legal tips




  • Have an up-to-date absence management policy and ensure it includes an expectation of regular and reliable attendance.


  • Exercise the policy consistently.


  • Consider any underlying reasons for increased levels of absence such as bullying or unsafe working practices.


  • Ensure that HR, occupational health and management teams communicate on what a returning employee can and can’t do.


  • Consider any medical evidence carefully; you may have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to an employee’s role.


  • Do not cast yourself as a medical expert.


  • Consider the impact of a possible absence dismissal on private medical insurance or early retirement rights.


  • The correct reason for any dismissal should be ‘some other substantial reason’ (SOSR), namely “absence.”

Source: HLW McCombie


FirstCare at Coca-Cola


Coca-Cola Enterprises brought in FirstCare at the beginning of last year to review absence management across its core divisions of supply chain, sales and corporate. The intention was to put in place a consistent absence reporting, analysis and management system, and provide ‘real-time’ data on trends and hot-spots.


Between January 2008 and 2009, the company saw the following improvements:




  • Absence rates down 34% to 3.2%.


  • Top reasons for absence identified on a department by department basis.


  • Transparent absent data provided across entire organisation.


  • Implementation received positively by staff and trade unions.


  • Employees report to feeling they’re in ‘safe hands’ when talking to FirstCare nurses.

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