How to equip line managers to handle absence in their teams

Employers are increasingly looking to their line managers to manage absences – but are not giving them the tools and support to do it well. This is the key message to emerge from the 2016 CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management Survey, which found less than half of organisations were providing training to help managers handle either short or long-term absence in their teams.

CIPD research adviser Dr Jill Miller points out that although getting line managers involved in managing absence makes sense, organisations need to recognise that it’s “a serious responsibility that should be built into their job role, rather than regarded as an add-on.”

So, what kind of training and support do line managers need if they are to be both confident and competent in managing absence?

1. Raise awareness

Line managers need to understand the bigger picture if they are to manage absence effectively in their team. They need to understand the common triggers for short-term absence, for example, and to be able to spot when employees are becoming demotivated, disengaged, or insufficiently challenged.

Knowing the top causes of absence (stress and musculoskeletal disorders) will also help them ensure they are organising work effectively and providing safe and healthy working environments for their people.

It’s also helpful for managers to be aware of the organisation’s overall well-being strategy so that they can see how their role fits in. A series of short briefings backed up by information on your HR portal, can be an effective way of making sure managers are well-informed and have easy access to the information they need.

2. Brief on policy and procedures

Line managers need to be well-versed in the organisation’s formal policy and procedure for dealing with absence. If people are unclear about the process they need to follow, there is a danger that the policy will be applied inconsistently. Or, in the worst-case scenario, if a situation escalates, they could open the business up to claims of unfair dismissal or discrimination. Make sure managers are up-to-date with the procedure for reporting an absence and are aware of the relevant trigger points – i.e. when a medical certificate is required or when a back-to-work interview needs to be scheduled. Don’t just rely on managers reading the staff handbook. Short

Make sure managers are up-to-date with the procedure for reporting their employees’ absences and are aware of the relevant trigger points – i.e. when a doctor’s note is required or when a back-to-work interview needs to be scheduled. Don’t just rely on managers reading the staff handbook. Short

in-house briefings will give people an opportunity to seek clarification and ask questions and will make it less likely mistakes will happen.

3. Understand the boundaries

Managers often struggle to know when a situation has travelled beyond their remit and needs to be escalated to HR. Make sure people are clear about what the boundaries are and know when it’s appropriate for them to seek advice. It could be either because they are in danger of straying into complicated legal territory or because they have serious concerns about the well-being of a member of their team. Providing some fictional scenarios may help them to understand where to draw the line.

Line managers also need a dedicated contact within HR (or in an outsourced HR service) and should also be aware of any occupational health provision that may be available, so they can signpost people appropriately. Make sure this information is easy to find. Most HR software system will have some kind of central portal where HR policies and key contacts can be housed.

4. Handle sensitive conversations

Don’t assume that managers will automatically be equipped with the skills to handle sensitive conversations with their teams. When you have to pull someone up on unacceptable attendance levels or talk to a member of staff who has a serious illness it can be extremely daunting for a manager who has never received any training.

They may be worried that someone will become upset and they won’t know how to react, for example, or concerned that a conversation could turn confrontational.

The best way to prepare managers for these of conversations is to give them an opportunity to practice in a safe environment. There are plenty of training providers on the market who will be able to deliver workshops that will equip people with the key competencies and give them the opportunity to ‘practice’ their new-found skills in realistic scenarios.

5. Ongoing support

Thought out training sessions can do much to prepare managers with the skills they need to manage absence confidently. But it’s also important to provide on-going support.

New situations will arise which people may be unsure about, or they may need to clarify key points of procedure. Even if managers have core responsibility for handling absence, they still need a hotline to some HR expertise and access to tailored advice about how to create healthy working environments for their teams.

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