There’s an awful lot of talk around about people data and the key role it has to play in helping HR drive performance and understand what makes the workforce tick. Recent CIPD research, for example, has shown that organisations with a strong people analytics culture are more likely to report strong business performance.

There is, of course, no doubt that HR software systems can provide really valuable intelligence on everything from skills gaps and training needs to productivity and engagement. But it’s important not to get too carried away by the numbers and to recognise that the statistics don’t always tell the full story.

The need to dig deep and find out what’s going on underneath the data has been highlighted this week by a debate that’s sprung up on LinkedIn about whether the Bradford Factor (a tool commonly used to track and manage absence) is still appropriate at a time when the need to support employees with mental health issues has come to the fore.

Some organisations, it is suggested, are taking the absence scores this tool generates at face value and are failing to look at what might really might be going on for employees whose short-term absence rates have raised a red flag.

What are your absence figures really telling you?

Absence is probably one of the best examples of where numbers generated by whatever tools or systems an organisation may be using don’t always add up. The figures will certainly be useful in identifying employees who may be throwing regular ‘sickies’ or in highlighting particular teams or departments where absence is becoming an issue.

The problem, however, is that if organisations don’t go a step further and look beyond the data, they only have half the picture, and may risk disengaging staff.

Yes, of course, every organisation has people who put their head back under the duvet after a heavy weekend or who use the slightest hint of a sniffle as an excuse to ring in sick. But there are just as many employees who may be clocking up short term absences because they are struggling to cope with a child or elder-care issue, or because they have felt unable to disclose a mental health condition or chronic illness, for fear it will endanger their job.

Equally, there may be people who are drowning under an unacceptable workload or dealing with a difficult workplace relationship and are phoning in ‘sick’ because they simply can’t face coming in.

Putting the ‘human’ back into HR

For those who are already feeling ill, stressed or are dealing with a challenging personal issue, an automatically generated warning or an email summoning them to HR could be the last straw. It has the potential to make them feel like a number rather than a human being and could even be the catalyst for them going off sick long-term.

Simply sitting down and talking sensitively to people, to find out what may be behind a series of short-term absences can, however, have the opposite effect. It provides an opportunity for the individual to talk about any personal or work-related issues they may be facing – and for HR to offer support, signposting or maybe even adjustments to working arrangements to help people manage whatever may be going on.

The employee feels supported by the business in their attempts to deal with what is often a short-term issue, and is likely to become more loyal, engaged and productive as a result.

This classic example of why organisations need to dig beneath the data applies across the HR spectrum.

Getting the balance right

Are your engagement figures giving you the true story of what people are thinking and feeling about their jobs – or are employees simply ticking boxes and telling you what you want to hear?

Is declining take-up of employee benefits because employees are just not interested – or is it because you are not offering benefits that people actually want?

The data your HR system can give you is incredibly valuable – but it’s often the start rather than the end of the story.

The key to exploiting it effectively is not to be charmed by the graphs and infographics and to assume the numbers are all you need. What’s more important is getting the balance right between what the statistics are telling you and what is going on in the background – and to use that combined intelligence to inform HR strategy.

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.