HR proves its value in battle against absence

Employers fear that the introduction of 24-hour drinking later this week is going to give their businesses a right old hangover. The problem is bad enough already, with up to 17 million days a year currently lost through alcohol-related sickness absence, at a cost to UK industry of £2.8bn.

Allowing pubs to open beyond 11pm does not mean that all employees are going to stagger into work pie-eyed every morning. But employers fear that extended licensing hours could pose considerable risks to the financial health of their organisations through lost productivity, poor performance and increased mistakes that longer drinking sessions might cause.

Managing sickness absence generally – not necessarily alcohol-related – is one of the toughest challenges for HR to get right. The struggle to find a workable, effective solution is what keeps a lot of HR professionals awake at night.

We have heard about the more controversial schemes, such as docking people’s pay for not turning up for work or paying bonuses when they do. One council is even offering employees private health treatment to tackle unacceptable levels of absence.

The public sector has a particularly tough task. The latest official figures show that the 9.1 sick days per year taken by civil servants cost the taxpayer 400m. We have published the league table of the best and worst performers (page 3) in terms of sickness absence. But guess what the difference is between them? The intervention of HR.

The department with the highest sickness absence (Inland Revenue) said that it just hadn’t given people management enough attention over the past year. The Cabinet Office, meanwhile, said that HR deserved all the credit for its low sickness score. Not only did it focus on the health and wellbeing of its employees, it even had a team dedicated to helping those on sick leave back into work.

Short-term incentives may produce results. But long-term HR strategies are the real answer.

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