As we consider innovations in attendance management, it is important that we examine the reality, not the marketing hype.
First-day absence schemes - where staff who phone in sick are asked a range of questions about their symptoms on the first day of absence by nurses based in a call centre - have been the focus of considerable media interest. However, there is no robust or independent evidence that these schemes make a worthwhile contribution to attendance management. Worse still, there is some early evidence that these schemes have the potential to divert management attention away from effective attendance management.
Most prominent among the organisations offering these services have been Active Health Partners (AHP) and FirstCare (FC). They have been highly effective in getting the media's attention - for example, being featured in an episode of Tonight with Trevor McDonald earlier this year.
The unsubstantiated claims of AHP were also repeated in the recent National Audit Office report on managing attendance, giving the claims an air of legitimacy.
These organisations claim that first-day absence schemes have reduced absence rates by up to 30% (AHP) and 40% (FC) - impressive claims that capture our attention.
However, it is important to note that there is no data to suggest that schemes of this type have been successful in the US or Scandinavia or anywhere else where they have been used. There is nothing in HR or health literature, and there is no such evidence presented on the websites of the first-day-of-absence service providers themselves.
Publicity v reality
The most well-publicised UK scheme is the first-day absence scheme at York Council. It used the services of AHP, which reported "27% less frequency in absence during first three months", while York Council described the scheme as "successful".
However, the reality was that after five months, as York Council reports, "the number of days actually lost to absence increased by 3.3%", which was attributed to an increase in long-term absence.
This scheme has not been without its critics. The York pilot scheme, first introduced in 2004, was extended in December 2005. It has been reported that absence rates had changed from 25.8 days a year to 23.2 days after the scheme was introduced. In December 2005, Unison threatened a ballot if the scheme continued, and suggested that the change in absence rates was "largely due to HR