Managing sickness absence – getting the balance right

Sickness absence may be at its lowest ever level in the UK, but it’s true to say that finding a fair and appropriate way to manage unplanned absences is one of HR’s trickier roles.

Illustration of ill woman wrapped in a blanket

In many organisations, senior managers view sickness absence as a costly and disruptive affair that needs to be kept under control. And, with around 131.2 million working days lost each year in the UK, equating to an average rate of 4.1 days per employee, they may have the statistics to back them.

However, the truth is that the vast majority of employees want to come to work and do a good job. They don’t purposely get ill, and they don’t throw sickies. In fact, as the research shows, in the absence of appropriate support, they are more likely to struggle into work and risk delaying their recovery and spreading their illness to others.

So what’s the best way to approach sickness absence, that works for the business while ensuring you also taking care of employees general well-being?

Consider the bigger picture

How much do you know about the general state of employee well-being in the organisation? Is all the sickness absence the business is experiencing unavoidable, or are there aspects of the way people are being asked to work or are feeling about their jobs that could be having an impact? Consider conducting a well-being audit at least once a year, to take the temperature of the business and unearth any issues that may be underlying a higher than desirable sickness rate. Employee focus groups can also help you get under the skin of what may be making people feel less than engaged with their jobs.

Make good use of data

A good HR software system will contain a wealth of data that you can use to analyse absences. It will help you look at sickness by everything from frequency per employee and age to specific job role, department or even time of year. Cezanne HR’s absence module also includes a monitoring report, which can help you generate some useful metrics, such as costs of absence and a Bradford Factor score per employee. For the uninitiated, the Bradford Factor is a calculation used to give employees a score based on the amount of short term sickness they are taking. It’s a useful starting point for discussion with employees, who often don’t realise just how much time they are taking off, what it is actually costing the business and the impact it is having on their colleagues. Read more about the Bradford Factor here.

Tackle the root causes

The data you extract from your HR system may uncover some interesting trends. If you are seeing an exceptionally high rate of short term absence in one particular department, it could point to an issue with management style or a bullying culture within the team. A high number of people reporting off sick with stress could indicate that employees are struggling with unacceptably high workloads and unachievable deadlines and are not getting the support they need. Work-related stress is of course now the most common cause of sickness absence in the UK workplace, with musculoskeletal problems coming in second. If you can pinpoint what’s going on underneath the surface, you can put measures in place to prevent problems arising, help people cope and support them appropriately when needed.

Train line managers

Line managers are often in the front line when it comes to dealing with absence, but many are poorly equipped to do so. Make sure your line managers understand exactly how your processes and procedures for reporting and managing sickness work, to ensure that a consistent approach is being taken across the business. It’s useful to share the bigger picture with them too so that they appreciate how much absence is costing the business and why it’s a priority to get it under control. Managers may also need coaching in how to have conversations about sickness with their teams. Many don’t have the skills and confidence to do this and will skirt around issues rather than being direct with someone about the fact their levels of absence are unacceptable or starting to cause concern.

Take a pro-active approach to long term absence

It can be extremely daunting for a manager to talk to a member of staff who has a serious or long-term illness. They may be worried that someone will get upset and they won’t know how to deal with it, or that the conversation could turn confrontational. Make sure managers are clear about where the line is between an issue they can deal with themselves, and a situation that needs to be referred to HR. Ensure they know about the range of support the business can offer – such as an EAP helpline or occupational therapy for example. Supporting people and facilitating a carefully managed return to work is key at a time when organisations can’t afford to lose talented people – and is an issue that has been recognised by the Government. A consultation is currently taking place around ways to improve support for employees with chronic conditions or disabilities, with plans to offer a sick pay rebate for organisations that effectively help staff get back to work. It’s definitely an issue that deserves attention. Personnel Today recently reported that more than 100,000 people a year leave their job after being off sick for at least four weeks, while 44 per cent of people who are off sick for a year fall out of work completely.

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