Christmas absence: Festive fallout

The winter months can present a fairly lethal concoction of problems for those trying to manage workplace absence. The cold, dark, damp mornings, separated only briefly by sunlight, before the cold, dark, damp evenings draw in, make for a thoroughly depressing time of year.

Absence levels usually double in Dec­ember, January and February, according to research by consultancy firm Mercer. Couple this with the inevitable ‘day after the night before’ sick days that follow Christmas parties, and the difficult return to work after the festive break when everyone is low on money and cheer, and it’s clear to see why HR departments see the sicknotes pile up.

As Louise Hadland, HR director at Shoosmiths law firm, says: “We do see a seasonal trend. The dark, grey, miserable mornings, leave many tempted to stay at home.”

Absence in the aftermath

The latest CBI/AXA Annual Absence and Labour Turnover Survey reported that absence cost the UK economy almost £20bn in 2008. While there will always be people with genuine illness, it is clear that skivers need to be dealt with.

Many employers manage the potential post-Christmas party fallout by clearly outlining company policy on alcohol and drugs directly before the event takes place.

For many companies, the days of the open bar are over, and the emphasis is on drinking less rather than making it all too easy for staff to over-indulge.

Managing staff members who simply can’t find the motivation to turn up for work has become slightly easier since a number of absence management providers began launching computer-based tools to help companies to track and record absent staff. Many of the various HR IT systems now available can alert managers to problematic employees, which is a useful tool to have when managing large numbers.

Dudley Lusted, head of corporate healthcare development at provider AXA PPP, says: “Technology can be harnessed to provide what managers need – data that allows them to do their job, which is to manage people.”

For instance, if an employee has been off sick regularly over a short period, say three days in a month, this is flagged up as a potential problem to the manager. Without the technology, a manager is unlikely to remember when staff are off and why, and will struggle to spot revealing trends, such as someone being prone to call in sick with flu on a Monday morning.

Paul Avis, corporate development manager at HR and payroll services provider Ceridian, says: “If someone calls in sick four times in the year, an absence policy may say the company has the right to act on this. But how many managers will remember how many sick days each member of staff has had? To deal with this you need a ‘prompt to action’ tool.”

To ensure all the data is recorded accurately, many of the HR systems used to help manage absence require employees to report their sick leave via an automated answer machine, where they leave details of their reasons for not coming into work. This is then transferred onto a central database and the line manager is notified of the absence via e-mail or text message.

“Talking all the time can be expensive, and we have lost the personal touch because an individual with a cold can call in [to take a day off work] and talk to a system,” admits Lusted.

Much importance is placed on recording data about absence, and without this information, many organisations would not have understood the scale of the problem and, perhaps more importantly, how much it was costing them. But the ‘personal touch’ is also crucial when managing absence, and the relationship between the line manager and the employee cannot be compromised when technology is introduced, says Avis.

Relationships matter

“The pivotal relationship here is between the manager and the employee,” he adds. “When we talk about personal relationships in the workplace, it is important that the manager enforces the absence management policy using the benefits and services available.”

At Festival Housing Group, technology is used to remind managers to take action against certain individuals, but once a problem has been identified, it’s up to the manager to deal with the issue direct.

Kay Dovey, head of HR, explains: “You can’t send an absent employee [a form] with tick options. Good management information is vital, and it will tell me when things need doing, but it won’t replace direct liaison with the employee.”

In many cases, an employee may decide against ‘pulling a sickie’ if they know they’ll have to have a one-on-one telephone conversation with a line manager.

Fiona Robson, lecturer in HR management at the Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, says: “With technology there is certainly a danger of losing the personal touch.

“Research has shown that when an employee has to report directly to a line manager absence levels tend to be lower the personal contact makes it less easy to have that time off because they have to have ‘that’ conversation with their ­managers.”

Line managers’ responsibility

The key to managing absence effectively is finding a balance between technology and direct communication. No matter which tools are used to deal with absence, a line manager still needs to take responsibility for dealing with someone’s time off work, adds Mindy Daeschner, principle at Mercer consultancy.

“Tools that show who is off sick, when and why, are useful, but managers still need to have ownership of the problem, technology can’t take over this,” she says.

Perhaps one of the most common reasons for managers not taking ownership of absence issues is fear of getting it wrong. Many will be reluctant to deal with employees who are unwell or absent from work because they do not feel qualified to do so. Absence management training is therefore important for managers.

Robson believes this has to go further than just reiterating company policies and procedures on absence, and extend to giving managers the confidence to confront employees and deal with delicate issues.

“Training for line managers needs to be specific, not just reinforcing the policy but tailoring the training to the manager,” she says. “For instance, carrying out the return-to-work interview can be quite an awkward experience for the line manager, they need to understand what to do with the information they receive.”

Christmas is a hotspot for workplace absence, and for many the temptation to shirk is great, but clearly there are tools at the disposal of line managers to help identify problem areas and deal with them.

But technology is only part of the solution. Companies need to produce a blend of direct communication between employees and managers and computer-based help if they are to cut absence decisively.

Case study: Ladbrokes

Two years ago, Ladbrokes worked out that sickness absence was costing the organisation between £2.5m and £3m a year, so set about changing the way it tackled the issue.

The betting firm introduced an HR system that was programmed to flag up any employees who appeared to be ‘problematic’ when it came to taking days off work.

Jeremy Trevor, HR director at Ladbrokes, explains: “We have a system that notifies us of problematic sick leave – where we have employees who are having more that three absences in a six-month period, for instance.”

To ensure the right balance of technology and human interaction is struck, Ladbrokes requires that employees make direct contact with their line manager if they want to take sick leave.

There is also annual training for line managers, including an update on disability discrimination, to ensure that managers have the confidence to speak directly to employees who claim they cannot work because of a disability without fear of reprisal.

For Ladbrokes, getting managers engaged and committed to dealing with absence was important, so the firm has incorporated employee absence into line managers’ key performance indicators.

“This is the key to getting commitment to the problem of absence. If rises in your bonus and salary are determined by these issues, you are going to take an interest in it,” adds Trevor.

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