What is absence management?
Absence management is about reducing employee absenteeism (usually due to illness or injury) through policies and procedures. In order to have an effective impact, these policies and procedures will need to be communicated to both employees and managers, with management/HR taking a pro-active role in applying them. Some organisations prefer to use the term attendance management as it is considered more positive and this may even extend to rewarding employees for good attendance.
Why is absence management important?
The CIPD Absence Management Survey report found that:
- on average an employee is absent for 6.9 days per year;
- minor illnesses (e.g. colds/flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines) are the most common causes of short term absence;
- the median cost of absence per employee was £554.
Whilst there is a clear financial cost of absence, it can also result in workplace disruption and negativity from colleagues who might be left with covering extra work.
Absence management policies
Each organisation will determine its own standards for absence so an absence policy should inform employees of these standards and let them know what it expected. An absence policy should provide a fair and consistent process to help managers deal with absence and let employees know how it will be measured. There should also be provisions to support employees and methods for reducing absence, like flexible working for example.
The policy would usually cover the procedure that should be followed when an employee is unable to work in terms of who they should inform, how and when by as well as what will happen when they return to work, such as a workplan following a long period of absence, or a return to work interview following any period of absence.
There should be a statement covering pay arrangements, whether the organisation provides the statutory minimum or enhanced sick pay for a set period. The policy should also explain what happens when absence becomes a problem and when disciplinary action might be invoked.
Absence management data
Recording absence levels allows for data to be measured and compared internally and externally. Internally the data can be used to measure the absence of each employee in-line with the absence policy. For example, the Bradford Factor might be used which is useful to highlight frequent, short term absence. Using an HR system can make it easier to record absence, understand the causes of absence and analyse the data for underlying trends, such as a specific department having the highest level of absence.
Absence management data can be used against external benchmarks to see how an organisation’s absence levels compare to others in the same sector or of a similar size.
The output of absence management data can be used to shape the provisions organisations put in place to help reduce absence.
Return to work interviews is considered the most effective way of reducing absence. They open up a dialogue between employees and managers early on and allow for provisions to be put in place before a situation becomes a bigger problem. For example, an employee might need to alter their working hours one day a week to allow them to temporarily care for relative undergoing medical treatment.
Using triggers like the Bradford Factor or other mechanisms can prompt a review with the employee and management when the absence is becoming problematic. These methods might be effective in dealing with short-term absence, but in cases of longer-term absence, other approaches will be required.
Communication with the employee on long-term absence is key, whether by phone, letter or home visit, to understand the situation and plan a return to work, which will need to be adapted for each individual. However, some cases regarding an employee’s physical or mental health might require a referral to an occupational health provider. Specialists assess the employee, recommend workplace adjustments and provide a report to management/HR.
An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can also be useful in managing absence as schemes often provide counseling to employees which could help them to overcome ongoing issues.
Once an organisation has exhausted its options for managing an absence there is, of course, the disciplinary and ultimately dismissal route. It is important that the organisation’s procedures are fair, non-discriminatory and followed correctly to minimise the risk unfair dismissal being claimed.
For more information about how to manage sickness absence, watch our previous HR Expert webinar where Alison Colley discusses her top tips. You can watch the recording here.
Updated: December 2019.