Employee absence rates currently stand at eight working days or 3.5% of working time each year for a typical employer, according to a study by Personnel Today’s sister publication Employment Review.
The research shows that one-quarter of all employers lose two weeks or more to sickness for each employee every year, while at the other end of the spectrum, a further quarter lose less than one week.
The findings are based on a survey of 297 organisations across the public and private sectors. The combined total number of people employed by the respondents is more than one million.
In common with other surveys of employee absence, the research shows that public sector employers have higher absence figures than those in the manufacturing or private services industries.
It also reveals differences by organisation size: at the median, employers with fewer than 250 employees lose 5.7 days to sickness.
This climbs to eight days for those with 250 to 999 employees, and to 9.4 days for those with a workforce of 1,000 or more. On a geographical basis, absence rates are highest in the north-west of England (where the median is 8.5 days), and lowest in the South West (median 6.4 days).
But line managers hold key to improvement
Return-to-work interviews emerge from the Employment Review research as the most effective absence management tool.
Nearly one in five (19%) of those questioned singled out this relatively simple intervention as the measure that had contributed most to the success of their absence initiatives, ahead of efforts to target individuals with poor attendance records (13%).
Line manager involvement is also regarded as important, with 12% citing line manager training and 11% saying that line manager buy-in to absence initiatives make the single biggest impact.
Line manager buy-in is seen as particularly important in the public sector, where 18% of employers say it has the greatest impact of all initiatives – putting it ahead of all other options.
In contrast, manufacturers place greater emphasis on return-to-work interviews (27%), while private sector service firms are more likely to put their faith in attempts to target individuals with poor attendance records (18%).
Line manager involvement is also more important for larger organisations – especially those with 1,000 or more employees. Smaller employers say they concentrate their efforts on return-to-work initiatives and targeted interventions.
Financial penalties and the use of disciplinary sanctions against employees with poor attendance records are rarely regarded as especially effective, while still fewer employers – all large, public sector bodies – look to financial incentives to reward people with good attendance records.
And the rewards are worth having
Organisations that run specific initiatives to cut absence can typically expect to see the number of days lost to sickness fall by more than one-quarter (28%), the survey reveals.
By comparing absence rates before and after the launch of employer absence initiatives, the research found that employers could claw back more than two days’ absence every year for each employee.
Manufacturers claimed to be able to cut absence rates by 37.5% at the median, with public sector employers the least effective, cutting just 20% of absence. This translates into 2.8 days in manufacturing and 1.9 days in the public sector.
The research also shows that the larger the organisation, the less effective its absence initiatives tend to be.