Formalising absence management strategies

Research from online information service Consult GEE shows that in terms of company size, the larger you go, the higher the absence rate. Eighty per cent of large firms now have policies to tackle the average of 11.5 working days they lose each year – compared to 28 per cent of small firms.

British Airway’s (BA) attempts to address employee absenteeism include a proposal to offer a £1,000 bonus to employees who take less than 16 days sick leave over the next two years. Staff who persistently go on sick leave without justification could also face dismissal.

Sickness absence costs the airline £60m per year, with BA staff taking 10 more days off sick than the national average. The company says the new policy is “tough on those persistently absent while remaining compassionate towards the genuinely sick.”

The Royal Mail has previously said that as many as 10,000 staff are off work at any one time, which is around 6.5 per cent of its operational workforce. It says that by rewarding their staff with bonuses and gifts – new cars are part of its latest scheme – the company is in fact showing appreciation for its staff’s commitment.

Short-term absence is one of the biggest risks to any business operation, accounting for as much as 85 to 96 per cent of overall workforce absence, and representing anything from 60 to 80 per cent of total workdays lost, according to HR consultancy firm Aon.

Ben Thornton, director of HR services at Aon, says: “While we can see the appeal of giving employees incentives to attend work, our experience points to this being a short-term solution, as it tackles the symptom not the cause.

“Long term, the only sustainable answer is to seek to engage people with the organisation’s goals so they are personally motivated to make a difference,” he says.

Thornton adds this will inevitably lead organisations to ask themselves difficult questions about how they manage, motivate and get the best out of people.

The 2004 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development absence survey reveals that employers are increasingly placing line managers at the heart of the process, including the use of return-to-work interviews and disciplinary procedures. It argues that line managers need more training in some of these areas.

“Attendance management should no longer be seen as just the concern of the company’s HR department,” says Thornton. “It is a fundamental management issue; one that every level of management in an organisation needs to take very seriously in order to tackle the issue.”

Many factors can contribute to the frequency and length of employee sickness, such as an individual’s resilience and personality, the availability of treatment, the individual’s domestic circumstances and the nature of the job.

Short-term absence is a trend that no organisation can afford to ignore. The majority of HR professionals will know it poses a greater disruption to the smooth running of the business than long-term absence.

Aon Consulting’s key recommendations to tackle workforce absenteeism are:

  • Ensure absence management is a key priority across your organisation; one that is owned by line management and supported by HR and OH

  • Record valid absence data on which management can make decisions

  • Get the buy-in from your management to manage absence levels; this group is key to improving absenteeism in the organisation

  • Conduct return-to-work interviews for all staff absence, to try to establish the root of the problem

  • Treat absence as a symptom of a wider organisational problem. Understand how your employees perceive your organisation and their own working environment.

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