The staggering cost of absenteeism to UK organisations made the headlines last week.
This is calculated to have resulted in a total of 175 million lost working days, a deficit that, it says, costs the economy an incredible £13.4bn.
But despite the headlines and high figures, Ben Willmott, an employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), said workplace absenteeism is not increasing significantly over time. He said there is no consistent pattern, more a yo-yo effect where one year the figures show an increase, the next a decrease.
Indeed, contrary to the CBI survey, the latest CIPD report published in July 2006 shows a slight downturn in absence levels.
Willmott attributes this erratic picture to the fact that many companies only tend to make earnest efforts to tackle absenteeism when it starts to seriously impinge on the business’ performance.
“In a lot of cases absenteeism is only managed proactively when the board starts jumping up and down. But once it’s under control there’s a tendency to take the eye off the ball,” he said.
To make serious inroads into absenteeism, Wilmott believes organisations should make line managers accountable for managing non-attendance at work.
And activities such as conducting return-to-work interviews, referring frequent or long-term absentees to occupational health, and disciplining staff with a bad attendance record should all be objectives on which line managers are given targets and assessed.
But taking a carrot and stick approach to dealing with absenteeism is to a certain extent closing the door after the horse has bolted, according to professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, Cary Cooper.
He said the CBI finding that 72% of long-term absences in non-manual jobs are caused by stressed-related issues points to intrinsic flaws in the culture of many UK workplaces.
“Over the past 10 years UK workplaces have become a lot more Americanised,” said Cooper. “Many have a long-hours culture and bigger workloads, while more staff are exposed to bottom-line approaches to management.”
Given this working environment, is it any surprise people break down under the pressure? he asked.
Cooper said to reduce stress in the workplace, organisations must learn to trust their people and introduce practices which demonstrate to the workforce that management has confidence in them. Bringing in flexible working and moving away from micro-management so employees feel they have a greater autonomy over their work are two positive steps in this direction.
As an exemplar of a stress-free working environment, Cooper points to Sweden where he said management and staff have much higher levels of mutual trust. Cooper says many companies here allocate a certain number of “mental health days” which allow an employee to call up and say they just don’t feel like coming into work. This, he said, is preferable to situation in the UK where the employee has to make up a story about having a cold or a sick grandparent.
‘Pulling a sickie’, as the practice is commonly known, now costs the economy £1.6 bn according to the CBI research. But at the TUC trade union general secretary Brendan Barber says companies should not get too hung up on this figure.
“While you are always going to get some people taking liberties, think of all the times employees battle through colds to come into work, work unpaid overtime or come in at weekends to help their organisations – this is the flip-side of the coin,” he said.