The results of the annual CIPD/Simply Health Absence Management survey were published earlier this week, revealing mixed news, and plenty to think about for HR professionals and business managers.

Beginning with the plus side, the findings show that absence levels have dropped over the past year from an average of 7.6 days to 6.6 days per employee per year. The report’s authors attribute the improvement in part to the growing number of organisations investing in developing the capabilities of their line managers (61 % compared to 39 % last year).

Less positive, however, is the rise in ‘presenteeism’, with a third of employers acknowledging that staff were struggling into work when they were sick and should really have stayed at home.

The impact ‘secret carers’ are having on absence levels also emerged this year for the first time. More than one in three organisations reported that absence levels had been affected by people taking time off to deal with caring responsibilities for family members at both ends of the age spectrum.

These findings have important implications for businesses of all types and sizes. Absence can have a significant impact on business performance, whether you employ ten people, or several thousand.

So what can companies do to improve well-being, help staff balance work and family responsibilities appropriately, and ensure absence levels don’t spiral out of control?

1. Have a clear policy

Only one in six employers have policies in place to help staff achieve a better work/life balance. If people are unsure about what is and isn’t acceptable – and what support is available to them – they are much more likely to feign illness when they are really taking time off to get an elderly parent to a hospital appointment or deal with a last-minute child-care emergency. There are a number of initiatives organisations can put in place to help people juggle their complicated lives while also getting their job done. Flexible working arrangements, for example, are being offered to staff with caring responsibilities by 68% of organisations in the survey, while 48% offered carers leave, either paid or unpaid. Different policies and types of support will work for different companies, depending on the nature of their operation. But the key is to make sure that whatever policy you have is clearly explained and easily accessible, so people know exactly what they are entitled to, and how they can access the support that’s available.

2. Make use of valuable HR data

Thanks to developments in technology, detailed people-related information is now available to HR and line managers at the click of a mouse. The latest HR software systems, such as Cezanne HR, allow companies to log and monitor sickness absence. This means HR can get an overview of absence levels across the business, and adapt policies and well-being initiatives accordingly. Line managers can easily keep an eye on absence in their teams, enabling them to spot individuals who may be notching up worrying levels of short term absence, and to look more closely at what may be behind it. The latest generation systems provide a wealth of easy-to-access information that can be used to inform strategic business decisions – although too few companies as yet are making the most of the data at their fingertips.

3. Create an open atmosphere

It’s important to create an environment where people feel it is OK to say if they are struggling with their workload, or finding it difficult to manage caring responsibilities. Yes, of course, the work has to get done – client needs have to be met and products have to get out of the door on time – but if employers want to hang on to talented staff, they have to recognise that the difficult stuff that goes on in people’s personal lives inevitably has an impact on them at work. Supporting people who have caring responsibilities in particular isn’t an issue that’s going to go away. By 2030, we will be in a four-generation workforce, and as life expectancy increases and people have children later, there will be a growing number of employees ‘sandwiched’ between caring for young children and elderly relatives. If employees feel they can talk openly to their line manager and that the business will be supportive, they are more likely to be open about what’s going on for them – rather than hiding the problem behind frequent colds and tummy bugs.

4. Look out for signs of stress

A worrying increase in stress-related absence was another issue that was highlighted in the survey results this year. Two-fifths of respondents reported that time off induced by stress has increased over the past year, with 43% of organisations also experiencing a rise in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Of course not all stress is work-related – 36% of survey respondents cited relationship or family issues as the top cause of stress-related absence. But poor job design, unpleasant working conditions, or unsupportive colleagues can also be a cause of stress. Managers need training in how to recognise the signs of stress early on so they can offer the right kind of support, and prevent small issues that can be easily tackled before they turn into major issues that have a detrimental impact on both the individual and the team.

5. Support line managers

Companies have a tendency to assume that line managers automatically know how to manage people and lead a team. The reality, however, is that people are often promoted into managerial roles because of their technical expertise as opposed to their proficiency in people management. Managers need training in how to have constructive conversations with their employees and how to handle difficult performance-related conversations. They need to understand how to manage conflict in their teams, and how to plan and organise work-flow so that it does not cause unnecessary pressure. Many managers are also still struggling with the concept of flexible working and need help to understand how it can actually improve efficiency and productivity as well as taking some of the pressure off staff.

Are absence levels an issue in your business? What policies do you have in place to support employee well-being? We’d be interested to hear your views – let us know in the comment box below, or tweet us at @CezanneHR.

Interested in absence management? You may want to read our blog on establishing functional and effective absence policies.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.