The number of sick days workers take may be at their lowest level in almost 20 years, but the cost of staff absence rose to more than £13bn in 2005, according to the annual absence report from the CBI and insurance company AXA.
The report suggests that a culture of absenteeism still prevails in the workplace. ‘Pulling sickies’, according to the report, cost the economy about £1.2bn last year.
But while many organisations take a ‘stick’ approach to managing absence, an increasing number are looking at innovative solutions, including incentives or rewards for attendance.
Royal Mail is in its third year of running an incentive scheme where postal workers with no absence for six months are rewarded with an entry in a prize draw to win holiday or shopping vouchers. If they have no absence for 12 months the draw is for a new car.
“We make it easy for people to come back to work rather than focusing on what they can’t do,” explains Ninian Le Blanc, head of diversity and inclusion at Royal Mail.
Jenners, a large department store in Edinburgh, has tried a different tack. It awards a fixed bonus to staff in its catering department who achieved at least 95% attendance in a three-month period. This successfully reduced absence from 5.3% to 4.4% during a nine-month trial.
The ‘Always There’ scheme at West Midlands Police, which gives vouchers worth £60 to police officers who take no days off sick in 12 months, has cut the number of working hours lost each year to 46.25 per officer. This is the second lowest in the UK. Staff can exchange vouchers for assistance with courses, charity contributions, or use them in shops or gyms. Almost 50% of the workforce qualified for such awards in 2004-05, but it reputedly cost the force £370,000.
At least in the short term, such incentives do appear to work. “As part of an overall awareness-raising campaign, incentives have their place,” says Sarah Brown, senior associate at Mercer Health Management Consulting. “They have successfully been used in hot-spot areas, such as call centres, to provide a focus on the problem and quickly drive down absence rates.”
Attendance levels at Royal Mail rose 14% during the operation of the scheme up to September 2005, equating to 1,600 more postal workers at work on any one day and bringing down absence from 6.3% to 5.4%.
However, not all organisations can claim such success. Contact centre outsourcing company Merchants offered a new Ford Fiesta as an attendance hook in 2001.
“The first week or two were some of our best ever, but by week three, we were back to normal, and by week four, all interest in winning was lost,” laments Adrian Garton, HR manager at Merchants. “Throwing cash at it doesn’t work, and we only mask the problem by perpetuating the practice.”
As a stand-alone initiative, incentives have their problems, says Brown. “They are not sustainable, they potentially incentivise the wrong behaviour, and do not have a long-term impact on sickness absence rates.”
There is also a chance that rewarding attendance could have a negative impact on workforce morale, especially on employees who have a good sickness absence record.
“They may resent others being rewarded for doing what they were supposed to be doing in the first place,” Brown points out.
Highly visible incentives might also encourage a culture of presenteeism, where employees are at work but not fit to do so, says Steve Charlton, head of health consulting at Punter Southall Financial Management. “The impact on the long-term health of an employee or the morale of a workforce can be dramatic,” he says.
Offering incentives is not the only way to reduce absence. Penny Tamkin, associate director at the Institute for Employment Studies, suggests organisations develop a culture where attendance is expected as the norm. They should encourage staff engagement with the organisation, improve health and wellbeing in the workplace, and build a range of employee benefits that help promote an attractive environment for staff.
Tackling absence is a question of balance that will not succeed by using incentives alone, concludes Margery McBain, director of consultancy Gravitate HR. “There is no right or wrong way to reduce absence. Where it fits the business need and the management style, it is more likely to meet with success,” she says.
Why offer attendance rewards?
- They may work in the short term, especially when used in conjunction with support for genuinely ill people.
- They generate awareness of absenteeism.
- There could be legal ramifications, giving rise to disability or gender discrimination claims.
- They don’t have a long-term impact, as underlying problems reoccur.
- They may encourage people to attend work while sick.
- They can lead to resentment from those who attend work anyway without extra reward.
- They can be expensive.
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