Absence management

A ten minute guide to Absence Management

What is it?

Absence or attendance management is the realistic and caring handling of
staff attendance. Absence management, as opposed to “absence
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
examine the impact of staff illness on the bottom line.

Early absence management policies simply involved keeping sickness records
to establish employee absence patterns, with line managers getting tough with
those repeatedly having sickies. 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 Salter.

A host of factors have made absence management the business of any sensible
employer – rising absence costs, 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 staff expectations of what
makes a good employer.

Increasingly sophisticated software has enhanced employers’ ability to track
and benchmark employee sickness patterns.

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 fewer
staff taking time off and improved productivity among those at work.

Staff absence is a costly business which can spiral out of control if left
unchecked. Last year, UK employers lost around £10.7bn through employee
absenteeism, according to the Confederation of British Industry. The CIPD set
the cost at £12bn. 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,” he says.

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.

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 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 for work.

For absence management to be effective, it should take in both long- and
short-term absence. According to Bevan of IES, most companies who 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.

The verdict

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

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.

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 past 18 months – to flexible working hours.

The Government’s new taskforce on flexible working practices,
set to report next month, could provide 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.

Fact file

Key players

The Industrial Society

Stephen Bevan, associate director of the Institute for
Employment Studies

MCG Consultants

William M Mercer

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 8518
4282 9

Measuring and Monitoring Absence from Tackling Stress at Work,
policy brief, The Industrial Society.
ISBN 1 4720 957

Pulling together: 2001 Absence and Labour Turnover Survey,
Confederation of Business Industry

Websites

The Health and Safety Executive, www.hse.gov.uk

Institute of Employment Studies, www.employment-studies.co.uk

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