Absence of common sense blights ‘sickie’ debate

Absence is a highly contentious and politicised issue. It is an arena where the bosses blame the workers, the workers blame the bosses and where there is more heat generated than light.

Organisations like the CBI, for which I once used to compile the absence and labour turnover statistics, annually publicise the size of the absence bill. In 2007, this bill was estimated by the CBI to be £13.2bn – although a project I conducted for a major insurance company a few years ago indicated that there are some very large companies who just don’t have a clue about what absence actually costs, and don’t have in place the mechanisms to manage absence effectively or intelligently.

Studies correctly reveal that absence is highly variable across organisations and sectors. The public sector, with its relatively high absence rates normally attracts the opprobrium of the CBI. But my own research also reveals that there are many parts of the private sector – such as retailing – where absence levels are also very high, even though the absence management regimes in these organisations might be considered by some to be harsh and to engender fear in the workforce.

Blame culture

Much that is written about absence often lays the blame at the door of the employee and many of the approaches taken to manage absence are based on naive and ill-considered understanding of the factors that cause it. While reactive responses such as return-to-work interviews might suppress absence levels in the short term, they do not address the factors that drive absence in the first place, particularly if the interview is a one-way, manager-to-worker affair.

My argument is that we need to see absence in the wider context of peoples’ working patterns, the external, non-work demands on their lives, the way that jobs are designed and the management and leadership styles within organisations.

Absence levels are higher where jobs are badly designed and where mechanisms are not in place to support workers with significant non-work pressures on their lives, such as child or eldercare. They are also relatively high where management styles are felt to be autocratic and reactive.

‘Sickie’ culture

While I accept that all organisations have their malingerers, it is my experience that these are often a very small minority of workers. My research in this area in the 2007-08 Work-Life Balance Survey and for the Chartered Management Institute’s Quality of Working Life reports, reveals that the ‘average worker’ supplies significantly more free time to their employer by working unpaid than they take off work because of absence.

Indeed, we might even conjecture that the reason some people take time off work is because they are burnt out by the amount of hours they are working over and above their contract. The research indicates that about 27% of absence is stress-related, with the average length of an episode caused by stress being about 14 working days – significantly longer than non-stress absences.

Culture shock

The research also finds that the average worker takes about six days off work per year, but supplies an extra 24 days per year by working unpaid overtime. Put simply, for every day’s absence the average worker provided four days free of charge. Consequently, when organisations like the CBI hit the headlines by claiming that absence costs UK plc billions of pounds per year, it is only looking at one side of the balance sheet. Using the CBI’s own costings, I estimate that workers are providing a £20bn per year subsidy to their employers in the unpaid hours they work. These hours more than compensate for the time lost from absence.

Organisations need to take a much more enlightened and holistic view of absence reducing absence by creating fear is not the way to go. Employers need to look at absence in the wider context of peoples’ working patterns. Absence is an outcome of a complex set of processes and stigmatising it means that by focusing on the symptom, we are deflecting attention from a very complex set of causes and, consequently, undermining the ability to create better-quality work environments.

Les Worrall, Professor of strategic analysis, Coventry University

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