Absence Policies: Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit all in summary:

  • With sickness absence rates climbing to their highest levels in over a decade, businesses must have  tailored absence management policies in place that meets their workforce’s specific needs.
  • A tailored absence policy is one that aligns to a company’s culture, caters to the workforce’s demographics and is both clear and transparent to everyone.
  • In addition, businesses must also take a proactive approach to wellbeing, regularly assess the effectiveness of their absence policies, and harness HRIS platforms with integrated absence management software.

Across industries, businesses are facing the challenge of rising sickness absence rates.

For example, CIPD’s health and wellbeing at work report for 2023 found that absence due to sickness in the UK reached its highest point in over a decade last year, at an average of 7.8 days per worker.

Meanwhile, the same study found that presenteeism, often driven by fear of job security or lack of sick leave options, is on the rise. A 2022 report from Deloitte noted this phenomenon costs UK employers up to £28bn a year, with presenteeism due to mental health actually having a more detrimental effect for businesses than staff absence.

Absence Policies - Why a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't fit Cezanne HR

In that context, effective absence management is more crucial than ever. But let’s be clear: a generic, one-size-fits-all absence policy simply won’t cut it.

While any absence policy should address both planned (holidays, parental leave, medical appointments) and unplanned absences (sickness, bereavement, travel disruptions), leading organisations are tailoring their absence policies to fit their people, culture and values – and here’s why…

Generic absence policies can be detrimental

In many cases, a generic absence policy can be detrimental to your employees work and a company’s culture on the whole. Why and how you might ask? Here are just two ways:

  • Lack of flexibility: Imagine a young parent struggling with childcare. A rigid attendance policy offering no remote work options could force them into presenteeism or even job loss. Tailoring your policy to allow for flexible schedules or remote work can benefit both employee and employer.
  • Low morale and motivation: A rigid policy, devoid of human understanding, can contribute to employee dissatisfaction and disengagement. Implementing initiatives like well-being programs, personal development opportunities, and workplace culture events alongside a supportive absence policy can significantly boost morale and productivity.

Why your organisation needs a bespoke absence policy

Crafting a tailored absence policy goes beyond simply offering flexibility. After all, your company is unique, and your people have unique needs. Here’s a deeper dive into why your absence policy needs to fit your organisation:

1. Aligning to company culture

Imagine a company that values innovation and open communication. Their absence policy wouldn’t simply list acceptable reasons for absence and details around what’s required for doctor’s notes. Instead, it might encourage employees to openly discuss health concerns with their managers, fostering trust and understanding. Or it may offer ‘mental health days’ to communicate to employees that their mental health is just as important as physical health.

For unplanned absences, it could offer the option to work remotely if feasible, allowing employees to contribute even when experiencing minor illness. This aligns with the company’s culture of collaboration and flexibility, empowering employees to make responsible choices while minimising disruption.

2. Catered to specific demographics

A young, tech-savvy workforce is unlikely to thrive under a policy designed for a traditionally structured environment. Offering remote work options for planned and unplanned absences could significantly benefit both parties.

Young or new parents facing childcare challenges might appreciate more flexible scheduling options compared to employees without such needs. Tailoring the policy to these specific demographics demonstrates the company’s understanding of their employees’ diverse needs, boosting morale and creating a more inclusive work environment.

3. Building trust and transparency

A generic, jargon-filled absence policy tucked away in the employee handbook creates confusion and can breed mistrust. A bespoke policy that’s clearly communicated, however, can be a powerful tool for transparency.

By clearly outlining expectations, procedures, and support available, it empowers employees to navigate situations confidently. Make the policy easily accessible, regularly review and update it based on feedback, and actively communicate changes.

4. Proactive approach to wellbeing

A truly bespoke policy doesn’t just react to absences; it anticipates them. This means incorporating elements that promote employee wellbeing and reduce unplanned absences.

Consider encouraging healthy habits through programs or incentives and fostering a supportive work environment that prioritises rest and recuperation. A proactive approach not only benefits individual well-being but also reduces long-term costs associated with chronic illness and presenteeism.

What to keep in mind when designing and applying your absence policy

  • Get feedback and buy-in from employees: Your policy is for your people, as well as for your business. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups, and solicit feedback during the drafting process. Understand your employees’ diverse needs, preferred communication styles, and expectations for flexibility. This ensures your policy resonates with them.
  • Stay connected: An employee off for 4 weeks has a 1 in 5 chance of not returning to work. Encourage open communication during employee absences. Offer multiple channels for updates, check-ins, and questions. Foster a sense of continued connection and reduce anxiety for both the employee and team.
  • Manage with the team with empathy: When an employee is absent, it often falls to their team to pick up the slack. As HR, help support them by delegating tasks, redistributing workloads, and provide clear communication.
  • Facilitate a smooth return with return-to-work interviews: Conduct confidential return-to-work interviews to discuss the absence, any challenges faced, and adjustments needed. This fosters reintegration and ensures the employee feels supported and welcomed back.
  • Create a ‘living’ absence policy: An absence policy shouldn’t be set in stone – it’s always about finding the right balance. Schedule regular reviews and seek out regular feedback. Don’t be afraid to adapt your policy as your company culture evolves or data reveals areas for improvement. A static policy will quickly become outdated and ineffective.

The right HRIS empowers effective absence management

HRIS platforms with integrated absence management software are game changers when it comes to creating and enforcing tailored absence policies. Look for HR features such as:

  • Employee self-service: Enabling employees to easily request and track all types of leave themselves (vacation, sick days, etc.), saving time and hassle.
  • Automated leave calculations: Automatically calculate leave balances and entitlements based on factors like hours worked and company policies, ensuring accuracy and fairness.
  • In-depth reporting and analytics: Reports and charts that make it easy to understand trends in leave usage and identify areas for improvement.
  • Multiple absence type support: Track any type of leave, from medical appointments to jury duty, and provide custom reports to help with resource planning.
  • Brand engagement tools: Personalise the system with your company branding and logo to make it feel familiar and engaging for your employees.
  • Shared workspaces and HR portals: Using HR software that includes HR portals and shared workspaces is a great way to share resources to promote better mental health or physical fitness.

Investing in a flexible and tailored absence policy, supported by the right HR software platform, is an investment in your employees’ well-being, your company culture, and ultimately, your bottom line.

Remember, building a policy that reflects your unique needs and values is an ongoing process. Embrace adaptation, actively listen to your employees, and leverage technology to create an absence management system that works for everyone.


Author bio

Kim Holdroyd has an MSc in HRM and is passionate about all things HR and people operations, specialising in the employee life cycle, company culture, and employee empowerment. Her career background has been spent with various industries, including technology start-ups, gaming software, and recruitment.

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