At-a-glance guide to managing absence

Sally O’Reilly outlines the steps you need to consider to develop best
practice on managing absence

Improving the bottom line

Employers who have introduced effective absence management policies are reporting
noticeable improvements on their bottom line, cutting costs as a result of
fewer staff taking time off, and improving productivity as a whole.

Return-to-work interviews are seen as an important way of managing sickness
absence, as are formal procedures for notifying absence and disciplinary
procedures in the case of non-manual staff. Three-quarters of the employers in
the CIPD research, Employee Absence, 2002, who used return-to-work interviews
made them mandatory for all absences from work, regardless of length.

Managers in the Work Foundation survey, Maximising Attendance, believe
motivating staff is the key to managing attendance, followed by return-to-work
interviews and accurate monitoring. But only 40 per cent of organisations
surveyed believe they are aware of all absence in the organisation, and in 5
per cent of cases, organisations say that less than half of all absence is
recorded. Smaller organisations are more likely to believe that all absence is

Work-life absence

Developing best practice schemes also means taking a holistic approach,
according to many participants in the CIPD survey. Home and family
responsibilities are a frequent cause of absence, and family-friendly
initiatives are therefore an effective way of cutting absence. However, only
one-third of organisations have been able to prove that such initiatives have
cut absence, says the CIPD.

Champions of absence management

Organisations which have brought in effective practices include Boots,
Transport for London, the Prison Service, the Inland Revenue and Vauxhall
Motors. Public sector organisations are often very active in this area, because
of high levels of absenteeism.

The CIPD found that five absence-management measures were used by more than
three-quarters of respondents to their survey. These were:

– providing sickness absence information to line managers (81 per cent)

– identifying absence triggers (78 per cent)

– involvement of occupational health professionals (77 per cent)

– reducing sick pay after a specific period of absence (76 per cent)

– disciplinary action for unjustified absence (75 per cent).

Occupational health involvement

The CIPD research found that 59 per cent of organisations involve
occupational health (OH) professionals in absence management. The following OH
approaches to absence management are used:

– 32 per cent offer stress counselling

– 28 per cent have health promotion schemes

– 18 per cent used rehabilitation programmes

– 17 per cent have an employee assistance programme

– 12 per cent use physiotherapy services.

Disability awareness

Legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 continues to
raise employer awareness of disabled employees in the workplace. The management
of individuals who become disabled as the result of sickness may mean employers
have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ before they can return to their job.

Absence management

The TUC found that early intervention can play an important part in
promoting a successful return to work. Long absence makes a return less likely.
With this in mind, 86 per cent of workplaces surveyed by the TUC use absence
monitoring. Case conferences also work well: many organisations with good
sickness absence monitoring now review long term cases regularly, with OH
staff, the line manager and HR being involved.

Returning to work

Maintaining regular contact with staff who are on long-term sick leave is
vitally important in helping them return to work – the CIPD found that some 90
per cent of employers were doing this, and 43 per cent said this was the most
effective method of dealing with long-term sick leave.

More than four-fifths of employers also reported the use of return-to-work
interviews, reduced hours (either on a temporary or permanent basis) and/or
changes to the work tasks or workload. And more than two-thirds provided either
stress counselling or an employment assistance programme.


The majority of organisations are still not benchmarking their absence management
performance against those of other organisations. Public sector organisations
are more likely to do this. The CIPD has found that currently, only 38 per cent
of organisations overall benchmark their absence management performance against
others, while only 23 per cent of employers compare absence levels of other
employers in the same region. However, 68 per cent of public sector
organisations benchmarked absence against other organisations in the sector.

Absence management policies

These are used by the majority of large employers. Of organisations with
more than 2,000 employees, the CIPD found 94 per cent had a formal policy. This
falls to 71 per cent for smaller employees.

Action points…

Take a holistic approach to developing best practice guidelines

Monitor absence effectively by consulting regularly with
members of the organisation’s occupational health department where appropriate

Benchmark your absence management processes against other
comparable organisations

Maintain regular contact with members of the workforce who are on
long-term sick leave

Use return-to-work interviews and provide stress counselling
and changes to work patterns where applicable

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