HR tackling sickness absence

Last week saw the publication of the annual CBI/AXA absence survey, which is regarded as the UK benchmark for measuring sickness absence. Two strong themes emerged from the survey, now in its 19th year.

First, where HR managers have primary responsibility for absence management, nearly two fewer days are lost compared with when line managers are in charge (5.1 days per employee compared with 6.9 days).

Absence is also lower where senior managers have primary responsibility – 6.2 days per employee. In previous years, the survey has consistently shown lower absence levels where senior management takes responsibility. But this year, for the first time, HR managers had the best record.

Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI, said HR professionals should be congratulated for effectively tackling absence.
“Line managers are not getting a grip on the issue,” she said. “Giving a greater role to HR managers and senior managers for absence management could bring significant benefits.”

But this message is struggling to get through. Just 14% of the 403 responding organisations gave primary responsibility for absence management to HR – the same figure for senior managers. But that is not to say giving line managers responsibility is without its successes (see case study).

Second, absenteeism, or ‘pulling a sickie’, remains an issue. Employers believe about 13% of all absence is not due to genuine sickness, costing the UK economy an estimated £1.2bn a year.

The survey asked organisations whether they believed there was a link between patterns of absence and external factors such as unauthorised extensions to weekends, holidays and days off for special events, such as football matches.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents believed there to be either a definite or possible link between patterns of absence and Mondays/Fridays (73%), unauthorised extensions to holidays (64%) and special events (40%).

The second highest cause of absence cited by employers was the feeling by staff that paid sickness absence was an entitlement.
Anderson said there was a real need for employers to address this problem.

“Sick leave is not an alternative to holiday leave, and staff do not have the right to skip work if they feel they deserve a day off,” she said. “Of course, staff who are genuinely ill must have time off work, but employers need to address cultural issues within their workplaces.”

The survey does show encouraging signs that employers recognise that other factors are at play here – such as poor management and staff morale.

The TUC flatly rejected the view that UK employees are shirkers, claiming that many people still struggle into work when they are far too ill to do so.

TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: “Trusting staff and treating them like grown ups is the best way to help reduce absenteeism at work.”

Case study: British Airways

Four years ago, British Airways (BA) was a company in crisis. The aviation industry was going through a traumatic restructuring after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the US, which led to falling passenger numbers and rising job losses. BA realised it had to look at its business differently and take tighter control of its costs.

Sickness absence was running at an average of 16 days lost per employee, at a cost to the company of more than £70m per year.

Peter Holloway, head of people and organisation development, said there was a lack of company focus on absence, mainly due to 20 different and mainly ineffective policies across the company.

“We found that managers were scared to manage the issue,” he said. “So we changed to one approach across the whole company – from cabin crew to office staff.”

BA handed all responsibility for sickness to line managers, backed up by a comprehensive support package, including mandatory training and online advice.

Holloway also spent a year working with the trade unions, going through the new policies “word-by-word”.

“We had to put some money in the staff pay deal to get the unions to agree to what we wanted. There were lots of industrial sparks that almost became fires, and we have been running around with buckets ever since,” he said.

But the changes are working. In 2005-06, BA reduced absence rates by 35%, to 10.4 days.

“It has been a massive culture change for the company. Some people hadn’t had a decent conversation with their manager for some time,” Holloway said. “But you have to insist, persist and keep saying that sickness [management] is very important to the company.”

Sickness statistics



  • £13.2bn total cost of staff absence

  • 164 million total number of days lost through absence

  • 13% percentage of days considered ‘sickies’ by employers

  • £531 annual cost of absence per employee

  • 8.8 days between the best and worst performing organisations

  • 30 number of years it would take the public sector to reach average level of private sector sickness absence if it continued at current rate

Source: CBI/AXA 2006 annual absence survey

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