Ten minute tutorial – Absence management

Liz
Hall offers a brief introduction to absence
management

What
is it?

Absence
or attendance management is the realistic and caring handling of staff
attendance.

The
use of the term absence management represents a shift from the negative term absence
control with its more punitive associations. Absence management, as opposed to
control, is about monitoring absenteeism, establishing the real causes of
non-attendance and addressing these with a raft of enlightened strategies.

It
typically includes keeping statistics, benchmarking against other companies and
industries, stress counselling, return-to-work interviews and training for line
managers.

Rupert
Salter, development consultant at the Industrial Society and specialist
consultant on the Maximising Attendance report says:"It is about
showing you care for staff, both those who are sick and those who are covering
for them. It is about getting to the bottom of absence."

The
story so far

Increasing
pressure to cut costs in the last recession led employers to start examining
the impact of staff illness on the bottom line.

Some
of the early absence management policies simply involved keeping sickness
records to establish employee absence patterns, with line managers playing
tough with those repeatedly having sickies on Mondays and Fridays. But there
was still a widespread sense that employee illness was unpredictable and hard
to control.

This
is changing: "Lots of companies are moving from seeing it as a policing
exercise to viewing it as a management exercise with welfare
considerations," says Rupert Salter.

A
host of factors have made absence management the business of any sensible
employer: rising absence costs to changes in the Statutory Sick Pay
regulations; changes to UK and EU legislation placing the onus on employers to
safeguard employees’ health; the need to maintain competitiveness with fewer
employees and higher employee expectations of what makes a good employer.

Increasingly
sophisticated software has enhanced employers’ ability not only to keep track
of their own employees’ sickness patterns but to benchmark against their
competitors.

The
promise

Employers
who have put in place effective absence management policies report noticeable
impact on their bottom line, cutting costs as a result of less staff taking
time off and improved productivity among those at work.

Staff
absence is a costly business which can spiral out of control left unchecked.
Last year, UK employers lost around 10.7 bn pounds through employee
absenteeism, according to the Confederation of British Industry. The CIPD set
the cost at 12 bn pounds. Absence costs include sick pay, temporary cover,
shift pattern cover, downturn in productivity, and loss of client-customer
service relationships.

But
according to Stephen Bevan, associate director at the Institute for Employment
Studies, only about a quarter of employers make an attempt to cost absence.

“They
perceive it as difficult or if they have low absence rates, they assume they
have low costs which is not necessarily true.”

Bevan
will be publishing a report on sickness absence costs in October, which is
unlikely to dramatically contradict findings in the US that absence represented
around 9 per cent of the salary bill.

“It
is clear that most employers significantly underestimate absence costs.”

Pros
and cons

If
done well, absence management should lead to reduced absenteeism rates,
improved productivity and higher morale, making staff feel looked after and
trusted. But if done badly, the opposite can occur, with employees feeling they
are under the microscope and feeling less undervalued.

"Yes,
there are side effects. If companies are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut
and people feel they are being spied on, industrial disputes can be
caused,"says Derek Burn, partner at MCG Consulting.

Rupert
Salter says that employees can be daunted when companies first implement
absence management strategies:

"People
find it scary at first and wonder why the organisation doesn’t trust them. It
is very important to explain it is about supporting them and not just a
policing exercise.

Burn
says the trick is to combine policing procedures with a counselling approach,
encouraging team working so staff feel they are letting their team down if they
don’t turn up to work.

For
absence management to be truly effective, it should take in both long and
short-term absence. According to Bevan of IES, most companies who do focus on
absence only look at short-term absenteeism. They could well be patting
themselves on the back without realising that long-term absence, which is the
most costly, has risen.

Who’s
on board?

Organisations
leading the way with their absence management policies include Boots, London
Underground, the Prison Service, Nottinghamshire City Council, the Inland
Revenue and Vauxhall Motors.

The
public sector is particularly proactive in this area – understandable as it has
higher rates of absenteeism than the private sector, according to the CBI’s
annual survey, Pulling Together. The Chancellor’s announcement of
targets to reduce absence rates by 20 per cent by 2003 has led to a flurry of
activity.

Verdict

The
future is likely to see absence management policies becoming more and more
important as costs of absence rise and employers’ duty of care becomes more
pronounced.

"Companies
will have to pay more attention to maximising attendance, either formally or
informally. People’s expectations as to how they are treated have changed: they
expect to be trusted and listened to," says Salter.

Flexible
working and homeworking will increasingly be part of the absence management
picture. Employers will need to get to grips with how to manage staff working
away from the office as well as those who are visible.

‘They
will need to move away from managing inputs to outputs, getting away from the culture
of only being interested in whether an employee is present,” says Bevan.

The
Industrial Society claimed in its recent report Maximising Attendance that
flexible working helps reduce absenteeism. Fifty five per cent of respondents
attributed the drop in the number of absence days per employee – from 8 to 6.5
days in the last 18 months – to flexible working hours.

The
Government’s new task force on flexible working practices, set to report in
mid-November 2001, could provide some leads for employers anxious to put in
place best practice models compatible with business efficiency.

The
law could soon be changed to make it easier for staff to keep sickness records.
Under the Data Protection Act, employers currently need to seek employees’
consent before keeping records but the Information Commission has pledged to
take a close look at the situation.  

Key
players

The
Industrial Society
Stephen Bevan, associate director of the Institute for Employment Studies
MCG Consultants
William M Mercer

The
HR contribution

The
HR professional’s key role in terms of absence management is primarily one of
setting policies, supporting line managers, keeping accurate records and
supplying them with facts and figures and the latest trends. It is also one of
offering training to line managers in interviewing staff about absence.

HR
needs to convince senior management to take ownership of the company’s approach
to absence.

"HR
needs to influence the board, designing proactive measures, advising on trends,
new job designs and corrective actions. Absence management needs a coordinated
holistic HR strategy so HR should 
proactively look at strategy rather than waste time chasing Fred
Bloggs," says HR consultant Colin Ions, head of DLA Consulting, part of
law firm DLA.

Essential
reading

Attendance
management: a review of good practice
(1998), S.Bevan and S. Hayday.
Institute for Employment Studies. Report 353. ISBN 1-85184-282-9.
Reviewing attendance in the NHS: causes of absence and discussion of
managing attendance.
S.Bevan and P.Heron. Institute for Employment Studies.
ISBN 0 7521 1535 9.
Measuring and Monitoring absence from work (1995). I .Seccombe.  Institute for Employment Studies. ISBN 0
7521 1535 9
Maximising attendance (2001). Managing Best Practice no 84. Industrial
Society
Tackling stress at work. Policy brief. Industrial Society.  ISBN: 1472-0957
Pulling together: 2001 absence and labour turnover survey. Confederation
of Business Industry.
Industrial and Organisational Psychology. Vol 12. 1997. John Wiley &
Sons. Article within the book by Gary Johns: Contemporary research on
absence from work.

Web
sites

www.hse.gov.uk The Health and
Safety Executive
www.hsebooks.co.uk HSE Books
www.employment-studies.co.uk
Institute of Employment Studies
www.indsoc.co.uk The
Industrial Society

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