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28 October 2003

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How to deal with absenteeism


One of the most common causes of employee disputes is the issue of attendance with many direct and indirect costs. A recent CBI survey on annual absence estimates the cost of sickness averaging at £438 per employee per year. This is equivalent to a total cost for British business of £10.5 billion per year. In addition to this the impact of higher absence is low morale, resentment and stress with those staff left to support the absent employee’s work. But a Cabinet Office report analysing sickness absence in the Civil Service written in 1998 reported that “absenteeism is a major source of preventable loss for many organisations”. So the question is ‘How can we better deal with absenteeism?’

The application of absence procedures requires an examination of the merits of each case and cannot be done blindly. The Disability Discrimination Act, which must always be borne in mind when considering employees who have absence from work, requires the employer to ensure that they have considered all reasonable workplace adjustments to enable employees to continue working. Therefore, in situations where sickness absence is genuine you need to apply sensitivity. Conversely you need to remember that non-genuine absence can have damaging effects on a far wider section of the workforce.

The causes of non-genuine sickness absence are both diverse and personal. They can be influenced by wide organisational factors including dissatisfaction with pay, training and development opportunities. In addition to this, bad job design or unpleasant working conditions can trigger poor morale while a perception that an organisation does not care about attendance may also influence individuals to take a more relaxed attitude to turning up for work everyday. Therefore, employers who take a more proactive approach in monitoring and recognising good attendance records are less likely to experience problems.

As for the causes of absence the most common are colds, stomach upsets or headaches. However, amongst non-manual workers stress is now the second most common cause of absence with back pain and musculoskeletal injuries being the second and third most common cause of absence for manual workers.

How to Manage Absence

As stated earlier employers must seek to strike a balance between preventing staff from taking unauthorised and non-sick absence and supporting those staff that are genuinely ill, whilst taking care not to give the impression that employees are not allowed to be ill.

For those larger organisations that have concerns over a lack of consistency between different business units on absence recording, the introduction of team working has been found to be an influential factor and encourages good attendance. The responsibility for managing absence usually is taken between the HR Department as a primary responsible unit encompassing a central monitoring role for overall absence levels and acting in an advisory capacity to support line managers. In addition to this employers can consider setting up absence review groups involving managers and staff representatives.

The smaller employer, who does not have the luxury of an HR department should still set up proper absence monitoring systems and have one person undertaking a central monitoring role. A senior secretary or administrator reporting to a senior manager or director, who will then provide advice to line managers as necessary, could undertake this monitoring role. Those companies that subscribe to The AP Partnership’s Employment Law Service are able to consult professional advisors on these matters.

However, the first point of contact in any absence recording procedure must be the line manager and who must have the responsibility for completing basic documentation and arranging follow up meetings to deal with the welfare or disciplinary aspects of the absence. The role of the line manager in this situation will include the following:

  • First point of contact

  • Ensuring work is covered

  • Recording details of illness

  • Maintaining absence records for staff

  • Examining and identifying patterns of absence which cause concern

  • Conducting return to work interviews

  • Participating in disciplinary procedures where absence is deemed to be excessive and not part of an ongoing medical problem

  • Offering support and welfare provisions to those employees on genuine sick leave

Some employers have included within managers’ performance reviews an element of absence management as a performance indicator. Some larger organisations have introduced league tables as a way of publicising and drawing attention to how well managers and their teams are performing in comparison with their peers. However, the displaying of such information under this heading may lead to questions of infringing data protection legislation so is not generally recommended.

When considering absence management a fundamental issue for all employers is to ensure that employees at all levels know what the company policy is on reporting of absence. Communication of this should underline the importance of the issues and will help to make sure that procedures are implemented consistently. Computerisation of personnel systems has increased within companies and therefore improved the ease of which absence management can be monitored as well as enabling employers to target action where necessary.

Most policies operate by asking employees to make contact as soon as possible on the first day of their absence, rather than receiving this information passively. Many organisations should use this opportunity to seek further details about the reasons for absence. The aim of this is not to pressure employees but to find out how serious the illness is and when the employee is expected to return. Having a discussion as early as possible is an important tool in helping to reduce the length of sickness absence and to limit its effect. Insisting that all calls made be done by the employee rather than by a proxy wherever possible is well worthwhile. As well as enabling managers to gain information this will help managers in deterring employees from taking non genuine absence.

Return to work interviews are also a crucial part of absence management procedures. The tone and form of this type of interview will vary according to each individual’s own absence record, and for this a suitable protocol that fits the working patterns should be established and used by all first line managers which have to exercise an absence management procedure.

The purpose of return to work interviews is multi-facet covering a range of issues such as the following:

  • To welcome and update the employee on developments that have taken place while they have been absent

  • To check that the employee has made a full recovery

  • To see whether the organisation can provide additional support where necessary

  • To review the employee’s absence record

  • To remind the employee about the effect of their absence on the organisation and to confirm where needed that attendance is important.

To maximise the effect and influence of return to work interviews these should be conducted as soon as possible after the end of the sick leave period and wherever possible as soon as the employee returns to work.

It has been shown through case studies that maintaining contact with employees who are sick avoids the risk of an employee feeling they have been cut off from work. A lack of contact from an employer could be interpreted as a signal that the company is no longer concerned about non-attendance and potentially encouraging employees that there is no pressing need to return. As with everything, there is a balance since too much contact could be regarded as interference or even harassment.

When dealing with a problematic incident of absence the policy must emphasise the importance of following consistent approach and one that is based on evidence. This may involve a pro-forma letter and record forms for managers to complete and sign when undertaking formal absence reviews. Such formal processes should include time for the employee to meet an agreed target through improved attendance.

Encouraging good attendance is one way of developing effective management of absence, and the introduction of initiatives and recognition for good attendance are positive ways of examining the success of this. In some circumstances paying private health care can prove more economical in the long run than the accumulative costs of company sick pay where treatment is delayed. Occupational health services can offer technical expertise and provide advice to managers in cases of long term sickness absence.

In addition occupational health can also pay a key role in assessing whether or not employees are fit to return to work. The rewarding of good attendance can come in the form of bonuses and non-cash incentives. Even simply thanking employees for their good attendance during normal yearly performance reviews and by linking it to an overall assessment of employees can be very beneficial. Conversely where absence records are viewed as being unacceptably high, managers should not be recommending such employees for promotion, transfer or pay increases.

Methods for Assessing Absence

There are numerous methods for examining absence to obtain different figures. Each of these can be used to analyse absence data and as part of a computerised system to flag up problematic incidences of absence.

Measuring the Overall Rate

In calculating overall absence rates many organisations use a standard formula to show the amount of time lost.

Number of days/shifts lost to absence

  x 100


Total number of working days/shifts

This method examines the overall severity of the problem but does not give additional information such as which employees are suffering from long term ill health or whether a large number of employees are absent for short spells.

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