Tightening sickness absence policies is not necessarily the answer

Performance indicators, productivity and lost working time… the lot of an HR director is not always a happy one. Especially when you are often held accountable for an issue that should, at least, be collectively owned by the senior management team – you guessed it, sickness absence.

Reading the ongoing publicity relating to absence levels, particularly within the public sector, it made me think that perhaps some of my professional colleagues have completely lost the plot, or at least the point.

When HR professionals only talk about trigger points, absence hotlines and their increasingly draconian absence measures – usually with the glazed look of a convert –

I really start to worry. Systems-based approaches to managing absence are all well and good, up to a point. But you run the risk of creating organisational problems in the longer term if you don’t first think about the bigger picture, and understand why people don’t come to work in the first place.

So, in dispelling some of the myths related to absence, let’s start with a few home truths. Absence from work is not always a problem; it can be caused by genuine illness, and each organisation will always have its absence threshold.

My organisation generally has fewer than seven days’ absence per year, with a workforce in excess of 14,500 people. Yes, we do the usual round of return-to-work interviews, occupational health support, trigger points and absence management training for line managers – all of which make a difference. However, continually tightening the screws on these sorts of processes misses the point. If you operate within an organisation where absence is taboo and HR acts as the sickness inquisition, then can you really expect to have a positive culture that fosters wellbeing and encourages people to come to work?

Stop to think about the underlying causes, and consider whether or not your organisation is simply reflecting the local population where you work. Is it an area of high unemployment, high incapacity benefit uptake and a low skills base? If this is your stock pool of talent, then shouldn’t you try to change the water in your pool so that you’re not simply recruiting more absence problems?

Managing absence is really part of the wider proposition about how your organisation manages the psychological contract with your employees. Not being a great theorist or academic, the psychological contract is a fairly simple proposition for me. If you recruit people well, give them a safe and supportive working environment, where performance is actively managed and they expect this from day one, then do you really need to get into this whole vicious circle of tightening absence processes and systems until the whole issue is blown out of proportion and people start to switch off?

Staff wellbeing is about providing an environment that is conducive to people wanting to come to work and doing a good job. It is about having managers who manage well, and an organisational culture that is mature enough to recognise that a degree of absence is a natural side-effect of employing real people. It is also about creating greater access to flexible working, and a broad range of benefits that motivate and encourage individuals.

A truly successful approach to absence management is a holistic one that doesn’t just do the hard stuff, but also thinks about the total package that you offer as an employer – friendly colleagues, access to learning opportunities, work-life balance, fair pay and rewards and so on.

So maybe next time you feel overwhelmed by the tide of statements about needing to slash public sector absence rates from Mr CBI or Ms Government Policy guru, you should trying looking at this in totality, rather than in glorious isolation. The choice is for you and your organisation to make. Do you want to talk about ‘in health and in sickness’ or ‘in sickness and in health’?

I know which one I would put first.

By Stephen Moir, director of HR, Cambridgeshire County Council

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