Managing absence during the Olympic Games

With several high-profile events taking place in the UK this year, employers may experience higher absence rates. David Prosser explores the steps that organisations should consider to prevent major disruption to business.

According to a report by the Institute for Employment Studies in 2001, unplanned absence costs UK businesses up to 16% of payroll, and it is widely regarded as the single greatest cause of lost productivity. Surveys have suggested that there is a greater tendency for employees to phone in sick, for example during football World Cups, thereby increasing short-term absence rates. One of the most popular sporting events in the world, the Olympics, is taking place this summer in London and, given that the range of events on offer appeals to a far wider spectrum of people than just football supporters, the Games has the potential to be an even bigger headache for employers.

There are also a number of other national events that could trigger planned or unplanned absences during the year, including the Euro 2012 football competition and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. So, it makes sense now to review and agree your absence policy for the next 12 to 18 months as there are some steps that managers can take to help reduce short-term sickness absence during busy periods.

With many of the events this summer taking place during daytime hours, one of the issues that managers need to consider is how to assess the likelihood that staff will want to take time away from work to celebrate. It is therefore important that managers start planning their approach to unplanned absence now. An effective sickness absence plan will have a measurable impact on both business performance and the bottom line while also improving employee commitment, levels of attendance and labour turnover.

Initially, managers need to prepare a plan. Employers will need to consider any logistical and organisational issues that they may face. If staff know that they are likely to be attending, they will hopefully arrange their leave in advance, allowing employers to plan for their absence. Thinking about and planning for known absences over the summer will make managing people and their workloads easier during the season.

Flexible approach

While employers are certainly under no legal obligation to allow time off for non-emergency situations, such as attending sporting events, they may benefit by providing a flexible approach to reasonable employee requests to support their team or country. This attitude is likely to boost morale and employee engagement, but remember, arrangements must be fair to all and employers cannot discriminate by only offering this benefit to staff who are interested in sport.

Managers are best able to develop an approach that suits their own organisation, based around their work culture, ethics and absence policies.

Actions to take now

There are a number of actions that can be taken in advance, including:




  • arranging for early discussions with trade unions or staff representatives to draw up an agreed approach before summer and to communicate it clearly and effectively with employees;
  • keeping any temporary “event working” arrangements time-bound and simple to avoid misinterpretation;
  • encouraging employees to formally book annual leave – perhaps on a first-come, first-served basis for simplicity – and make it clear that taking unauthorised time off without good reason could result in disciplinary procedures being invoked. If the organisation does not already offer it, it is worth considering the option of providing unpaid leave, but, again, only in the time period specified;
  • ensuring that any unplanned staff absence is closely monitored and recorded. Ask workers to notify their manager of the cause of their absence at the earliest opportunity. To do this effectively, employers must have consistent policies and protocols in place for reporting unplanned absence;
  • encouraging flexible working or shift swapping as a short-term measure, even if the organisation does not currently have any formal arrangements in place;
  • if possible, and subject to available IT, allowing staff to work from home or at other remote locations to avoid travel disruption during busy periods; and 
  • considering to show the most popular events on a screen in the office or allowing staff to watch via their PC, provided that lost time is made up.

Communicate your plans

Employees will want to know at an early stage what, if any, arrangements are being put in place to support them enjoying their preferred activities. Once managers have agreed their approach to employees, ensure that they are made aware of them well in advance. Communicating a decision to screen some of the more popular events, or allowing people to watch them elsewhere, will demonstrate a flexible approach and will boost morale.

Handling unplanned absences

In addition to planned absences, there is a predicted rise in short-term absence caused by workers seeking time off and taking “sickies” to enable them to enjoy watching the sporting events from home.

Communicating the absence policy to all managers is imperative to ensure that it is followed consistently across the business. There may be different management styles, but having key guidelines and protocols in place will help to identify weak areas of the business and help to address any issues.

Looking more generally at absence policy, if employers are looking to improve overall commitment and therefore performance, then there are steps that they can take.

The key to successful absence management, therefore, is to ensure that:




  • absence data is monitored at monthly departmental management team meetings, where employees with concerning patterns of absence are reviewed;
  • employees who repeatedly have high levels of sickness absence are monitored to ensure that appropriate action is being taken by their line managers – for example, warning/disciplining employees for poor attendance and/or referral to occupational health or, if available, an employee assistance programme;
  • those employees with long-term absence issues are reviewed as a matter of course. Information should be reviewed to identify other employees whose patterns of absence are a cause for concern; and
  • senior managers check that line managers are providing their team members with the relevant support and that employees are being helped back to work where it is appropriate to do so.

Conclusion

Amid all these thoughts on the predicted rise of short-term absenteeism, it is probably a good idea to bear some fundamentals in mind. First of all, most employees want to do a good job and most absence is genuine. However, when short-term absence is higher than the norm or higher than desired – and it can be argued that taking perhaps one or two sickness days a year can serve as a useful safety valve – then the reasons need to be understood.

Managers need to be able to distinguish between two different types of short-term absence. First, there is occasional short-term absence, which may be due to illnesses such as coughs, colds or an upset stomach. Nothing can or should be done if employees have a short-term absence on an infrequent basis. It can have the potential to alienate the employees who are genuinely sick when it is suggested that their absence is inappropriate or that it could be shortened in some way.

Second, there are short-term absences – also attributed to coughs, colds, stomach upsets and so on – that may require a management cautionary process when problems arise on a frequent basis (three or more times in 12 months). However, managers need to ensure that line managers receive adequate training on how to manage employees with such an issue.

The UK has lots to celebrate in 2012. At the same time, businesses need not suffer from lower productivity as a result of higher rates of employee absence. Companies that implement an effective sickness absence strategy in advance will feel the real benefit, especially in the long term.

Maintaining a management approach based on believing that employees are genuinely sick – rather than simply malingerers – will help to build valuable engagement and loyalty.

David Prosser is strategic development manager at AXA PPP healthcare.

XpertHR provides a model policy to help deal with absence and other issues arising at the time of sporting or other special events such as the football World Cup or the Olympic Games.

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