Good news this week in the shape of a survey showing the average level of employee absence has fallen over the past year – from 7.7 days to 6.8 days per employee per year. Look behind the figures, however, and the picture is not quite so positive.
The CIPD/Simply Health Absence Management Survey also found that although absence levels are going down, almost a third of employers are reporting an increase in the number of people ‘going to work ill’.
The researchers suggest that this trend towards presenteeism is largely driven by worries about redundancy. The idea that people are in fear for their jobs is also borne out by increased levels of stress and mental health related problems being reported by organisations.
So what can employers do to ensure they strike the right balance between keeping absenteeism rates low, while also ensuring people are not turning up to work when they really should be staying at home?
Have a clear absence policy
Having a clearly laid down absence policy means everyone understands your stance on sickness absence and is clear about the procedures that need to be followed. Keep the policy simple so that there is no room for confusion or misinterpretation. People need to know that persistent, short-term absence for no good reason is not acceptable – but that if they are genuinely ill they are not expected to come into work and won’t be penalised for it. Make sure you explain the policy to all new recruits as part of their induction programme and ensure it is easily accessible (on your intranet or as part of a staff handbook) so people can refer to it when necessary.
It’s also essential that you record absences in the right way. Should things go pear-shaped and you find yourself having to take disciplinary action or manage someone out, it’s absolutely essential that you have the information available to support this decision. Remember that it’s important to differentiate between different types of absences. Allowing someone to take a day off to look after a sick relative or cover an unexpected child care issue shouldn’t be categorised in the same way as a personal illness. Crises happen, and the courts recognise that sometimes employees need time off that shouldn’t count against them.
Apply the policy consistently
Your policy won’t be worth the paper it’s written on if managers are not applying it consistently. Make sure a culture of ‘acceptance’ isn’t taking hold in some teams and departments. If people see colleagues throwing regular sickies without comment they are more likely to think they can get away with it as well. Employees will also get very mixed messages if they see genuine sickness being (rightly) treated with sympathy and concern in one area and not in another. Don’t let resentment creep in among staff who can see that absence is regarded and treated differently across the business. Make sure you either talk through the policy informally with all managers or provide short internal training sessions to make sure everyone is up to speed with the procedures and is applying them correctly.
Have better conversations
Managers often sweep persistent short term absence under the carpet because they don’t really know how to deal with it. They are worried they will get into confrontations with employees or may expose themselves to claims of bullying if they take a tough stance. Many line managers are also uncomfortable dealing with genuine illness, particularly if it is of a serious nature. They don’t know what questions it is acceptable to ask or how they can support employees in an appropriate manner. Companies have a tendency to assume that managers have the ability to communicate clearly and openly with their teams, but it’s not a skill that comes naturally to all. Consider putting together a training programme or offering informal coaching to help managers gain the confidence to deal appropriately with the difficult conversations that often arise around absence.
Introduce return to work interviews
Return to work interviews are a great way to support and underline your absence policy. The aim of the interview should be to understand why the person has been off ill, to make sure they are fit to return to work and to discuss if any adjustments or short term changes to working arrangements need to be made to facilitate their return. It’s a good way to support people who have genuinely been off ill and to find out if any work-related issues are affecting their health. It’s also a great way to nip unnecessary short-term absence in the bud. People will think more carefully about whether to throw a sickie if they know that on their return, they will be required to check in with their manager and explain the reasons for their absence. Do make sure, however, that managers are approaching the interview from a position of concern rather than a position of policing or they may find themselves getting into unnecessary confrontations.
Often, employees are unaware of the impact absence is having on the business. They don’t always understand the knock on effect on productivity or appreciate the difference reducing absence could make to the bottom line. Thanks to the latest absence management technology, it’s now much easier to collect data about absence, identify patterns and assess the true cost. Don’t keep the information your system gives you to yourself. If you share it openly with employees they will understand why it’s important to keep absence under control and are much more likely to support any policies you may introduce.