From absence to attendance

HR professionals reading this year’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) absence survey, Employee Absence 2004: a survey of management policy and practice, could be forgiven a groan of resignation. Absence levels are higher than last year, much of it is short-term, stress is rampant and GPs are increasingly over eager to sign off malingerers.

But behind the rather grim headlines, it is clear that, within HR at least, attitudes to absence are changing. Both the CIPD’s survey of more than 1,000 HR professionals and the CBI/AXA’s similar study of 500 employers in May, entitled Room for Improvement: absence and labour turnover 2004, clearly show employers – and HR in particular – are making slow, albeit significant headway in tackling this issue.

Just as manual clocking in is becoming something of a rarity, so talk of ‘sickness absence’, with its medical overtones, is giving way to ‘attendance management’. This is much more of an organisational issue.

Alongside this, HR is taking a much more proactive approach to making sure people turn up to work. The days of waiting passively for the employee signed off sick simply to walk back in through the door are long gone.

Looking at the detail within the CIPD survey, while absence overall has risen slightly, the number reporting a decrease (39 per cent) is higher than those reporting an increase (31 per cent).

Better methods of recording absence and tighter policies are cited as major influences in this change. For short-term absence, employers are increasingly finding return-to-work interviews effective, and are backing policies up with disciplinary procedures. They are also getting line managers involved and using trigger mechanisms to ring alarm bells.

Similarly, for long-term absence, more organisations are embracing rehabilitation programmes, changing job patterns or designs and using the services of occupational health (OH) professionals.

HR, then, has become and is becoming much more savvy about absence, especially the need to intervene early, argues CIPD adviser, Ben Willmott.

“You need to ensure that line managers, HR and OH are all singing from the same song sheet. But at the same time, you need to make sure staff are not feeling badgered,” he says.

“Employers have realised that the issue of absence is not just medical. You can get two people with identical medical problems and one will go off sick and others will not,” says Dr Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser to the Engineering Employers Federation. “It comes to geography, organisation and personal outlook, and HR has a part to play in all those areas,” he adds.

Khan’s message echoes that of Mary McFadzean, organisational health manager at HBOS, who argued at June’s Occupational Health Managers Forum Conference that absence needed to be tackled by both HR and occupational health departments, because so often, absence was non-medical.

The CIPD survey also makes it clear that, while HR still wants GPs to be responsible for signing people off work, the days of unquestioning loyalty to their judgement are gone.

“Once someone is signed off with a sick-note, too often managers are passively waiting until they come back to work. But there needs to be early intervention. At six months, the likelihood of returning to work is only 50 per cent so, if they’re off six months, you’ve probably lost them,” explains Khan.

Similarly, there is a growing realisation that it is as much down to the employer to get someone back to work.

“The whole debate is moving away from absence management to one of a well-being approach,” argues Willmott.

While being sick is still, rightly, something between you and your doctor, being absent, it appears, increasingly is not.

Case study: Scottish & Newcastle

How people are led and the messages that are reinforced are critical factors in managing short-term absence, suggests Dr Noel McElearney, director of group health, safety and environment at brewer Scottish & Newcastle (S&N).

“It’s difficult to not just be delighted when the shift pitches up and Joe, who has been off, is back. It’s hard to turn around and have a bad conversation with him, which is why so many managers are prepared to duck it,” he says.

There is a growing recognition that businesses – and HR – need to think more innovatively, he says. Even the label ‘sickness absence’ is misleading. Short-term absence might be better called ‘failure to attend’, he adds.

There is also a greater understanding that long-term absence is a very different proposition – and the NHS may not always be best placed to manage it.

“The NHS only has finite resources, so it’s only interested, and quite rightly, in treating the most sick people,” he says.

“But from the employer’s point of view, the perspective is completely different. We want to see anybody who is not well enough to be in work getting urgent treatment so they can return.”

For the past 18 months S&N has been testing an early intervention system at one of its London distribution centres.

The AXA service guarantees staff an OH consultation within a day and, if appropriate, a physiotherapist appointment within two days. Seeing a consultant or having an MRI scan can be arranged within three to five days.

“It is about bringing line manager, HR and OH together in a structured fashion.

“We have had to increase the OH resource slightly, but for every £1 we spend, we save £2 in cash terms in reduced disruption,” says McElearney.

What HR must avoid

  • Believing absentees, particularly those on short-term sick, are all malingerers until proven otherwise

  • Seeing attendance as a stand-alone problem that can be dealt with in isolation from other issues

  • Confusing roles and responsibilities between senior, line, other HR and occupational health managers

  • Not constantly communicating why your policies are important, good and not just another burden for line managers

  • Developing an attendance management policy without rigorously (and continuously) identifying the root causes of absence in your organisation

  • Focusing solely on the disciplinary side of absence rather than rehabilitation, and on long-term at the expense of short-term absence by failing, say, to enforce return-to-work interviews.

Case study: Tesco

HR needs to stop thinking of absence, or attendance, as something to be managed as a stand-alone issue, argues Tesco HR director, Clare Chapman. Addressing the causes of attendance should be central to how HR helps management deliver the business.

It was Tesco, of course, that hit the headlines in May over its 20-store experiment not to pay workers for the first three days they are off sick.

What got less publicity, however, was the fact the non-payment element was part of a wider, more thoughtful pilot project. Staff are offered extra holiday in the hope they will use that up for the odd day off where they might otherwise have called in sick.

There is a voucher scheme to reward those who do not take time off sick. And if workers are ill for more than three days, they can revert to claiming sick pay as well as get compensation for the unpaid days.

Attendance can only truly be managed constructively if there is engagement between managers and employees, Chapman believes. “If there is an atmosphere of mistrust, then obviously people are going to watch your actions rather than your words. We need to be asking what staff are looking for from work,” she explains.

With long-term absence, there is a lot HR can do around job design, as well as early OH support, she says.

“Managers have an absolutely key role to play. It needs to be far less passive. There is too often an expectation that it is always going to take someone a long time to get better.

“What we are learning is that when we start to see patterns emerging, we need to act quickly. What HR has not been terribly good at is providing the insight and analytical diagnosis that managers want, the innovative solutions managers can use,” Chapman argues. “We have been too preoccupied with the consequences rather than the causes.”

Case study: Eurotunnel

Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel has long recognised the importance of HR being in the thick of absence management, working alongside its line managers, occupational health, operations staff, unions and the staff council.

Part of Eurotunnel’s performance bonus is based on an absence target of 2.75 per cent of working time being met. As such, HR, OH and line managers get together every month to discuss attendance management issues, review absence trends and discuss any intervention needs.

Staff who take five or more days off sick, or who have two or more separate periods of absence over a 13-week period, have an absence review meeting with their manager.

It also reviews absence over a 52-week period, and employees who have eight days off, or five or more periods of absence, attend a review meeting.

“We very much look at it in terms of attendance in its entirety rather than focusing on it as sickness absence,” says HR manager Sheila Seabourne.

Staff off sick get full pay for the first six months and all workers are offered private health insurance, she adds. All managers are also trained in attendance management, including how to conduct return-to-work interviews.

From next year, the company plans to tighten its return-to-work policy even further, ensuring staff are interviewed after any absence apart from agreed holidays.

“It’s the old maxim of if you spend time, you save time. If you spend a bit of quality time with your employees, you are much more likely to get beneath the surface and find out what is really going on,” Seabourne explains.

“We are looking to widen the scope of our focus on to attendance, not just sickness. But at the same time, we are trying to allow managers more discretion. One of the key problems is trying to strike a balance between consistency and being able to take into account individual circumstances,” she adds.

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