The management of absence is complex and dependent upon a mix of approaches to support those who are sick and to deter the small minority whose absence is non-health related.
Best Practice Absence Management
Best practice absence management requires that organisations consider their overall approach and commitment to absence management. The key elements of best-practice at organisation level include the following.
Clear policies and procedures
A necessary starting point is a good clear policy that is well communicated and understood by both staff and managers. Absence management can only be effectively conducted if there are clear and agreed procedures and triggers for action. There should also be different policies and procedures for dealing with short-term and long-term absence.
Once the overall absence management policy has been defined and agreed, it needs to be thoroughly and consistently communicated to the workforce as a whole. Commonly, absence management is seen as a stand-alone issue that’s published in a discrete policy but isn’t reflected in broader HR materials or publications. In reality, attendance at work is a key issue that should lie at the heart of HR and people management practice.
On this basis, therefore, the absence management policies and procedures should be regularly publicised among the workforce and reiterated in any relevant documentation. This might include copies of terms and conditions, employee handbooks, induction materials, notice boards, and so on. If the message is repeated, clearly and simply, employees and managers will recognise that this isn’t simply a ‘bolt on’, but is a genuine priority for the organisation.
Absence Management Statistics / Data
Policies and procedures are not sufficient on their own. The policies also need to be supported by data that are reliably collected and then attractively presented.It is also helpful to produce regular organisational statistics about absence levels and targets across the organisation. An increasing number of organisations recognising the real cost of absence are beginning to see this as a key performance indicator to be measured and publicised alongside more conventional measures of organisational performance. This includes the presentation of absence figures as part of the overall management data at senior management and board levels.
In addition, it can be helpful to publish ‘league tables’ of absence levels across different areas of the business (or to compare absence levels with those in similar external organisations). As always, such league tables need to be treated with a degree of caution, as they can inspire unhealthy competitiveness which may lead to inappropriate action. Nevertheless, they can provide a powerful incentive to employees and management to improve performance and standards. Often employees simply don’t recognise that their absence levels are significantly higher than those of their colleagues or counterparts elsewhere. So, highlighting these differences can be a valuable first step to breaking down entrenched cultures or practices.
Successful absence management is almost always predicated on good data. Line managers must have real time data, even elementary data, on which to take absence management decisions, let alone use more sophisticated tools like the Bradford factor. This will give managers more timely data so that they can monitor absence and take action at agreed trigger points.
Top level commitment
Securing lasting improvements and culture change needs a good deal of sustained management energy, similar to any programme of change in an organisation. Thus, organisations need to find ways of keeping absence management at the top of the management agenda if they are to avoid the pitfalls encountered by many unsuccessful change programmes.
Training and support for managers
All good practice relies on properly trained management. Training in the procedures is essential for line managers to act appropriately. Managers should not only receive formal training in the systems and procedures but also in the skills they need to deal with case management, referral and return to work discussions.
HR support and skills
Best practice absence management also requires that HR departments reconsider whether their support to managers and those who are sick is sufficient. Line managers should be able to expect:
• professional HR advisory and other support services in dealing with sickness absence;
• formal access to occupational health services to which managers can refer workers for early intervention and planned early return.
Best Practice Short-Term Absence Management
The key elements of good practice in managing short-term absence include:
Line managers responsible for implementing policy
All employees should be aware of procedures if unable to attend and how their absence will be handled. The “Original Call” handling by the line manager is critical for setting a sympathetic yet professional tone about the absence. The “Return-to-work” interview is considered one of the most effective means for dealing with short-term absence. “Fitness to Return to Work” certificates should be requested and provided.
Managers should conduct return to work interviews after every absence. Accurate recording of absence is critical at this point. This should include days/dates, certified or uncertified, were notification procedures followed, were “fitness to return to work” certificates provided, reasons for absence, and what, if any, supports the line manager / organization can provide to support the absentee and encourage them to full attendance.
Trigger Points & Absence Review Meetings
‘‘Trigger’’ points should be defined and once an employee arrives at a trigger point, a review of an employee’s attendance should take place.
Investigation / Medical Review
At this point, the HR manager, in conjunction with the line manager, may request information from the employee’s medical practitioner or may request they attend the company’s occupational health / medical personnel.
Flexible working or other arrangements to promote attendance
It may be appropriate and prudent for the line manager to consider working arrangements that may support the employee in full attendance e.g. flexible working hours, special leave for family circumstances, etc. Of course, such arrangements would be aligned with organisation policy in this regard.
Counselling / Employee Assistance Programme
The line manager may offer counselling or support from the Employee Assistance Programme or other support such as physiotherapy, etc.
The line manager, with support from HR, may commence the disciplinary procedure aligned with company rules and regulations in the regard, and following the rules of natural justice and appropriate disciplinary procedures and practice.
Best Practice Long-Term Absence Management
The key elements of good practice in managing long-term absence include:
Key to successful long-term absence management is early intervention by the line manager/HR. Studies indicate that with early intervention there is a much higher likelihood of an early / successful return to work than should the intervention by the organisation come at a later stage in the absence.
Keeping in contact
Keeping in regular contact with the employee is also critical to successful return to work of the employee.
Establishing a nominated case manager and holding regular case management conferences with key personnel is critical to successful long-term absence management.
Occupational Health Involvement / Rehabilitation Programme
Key to successful long-term absence management is appropriate intervention by the occupational health personnel and the design of suitable rehabilitation programmes and re-integration into the workforce.
Counselling / Employee Assistance Programme
Counselling or support from the Employee Assistance Programme or other support such as physiotherapy, etc. may also be offered to the absent employee.
Disciplinary procedures / Breach of Contract
This is a difficult area from a human perspective and also a legal perspective. However, the employee who is on long-term absence may ultimately be in breach of their contract as they are unable to fulfil the duties to which they were hired, and careful consideration should be given to a possible termination of contract.
Other Best Practice Tools for Managing Absence
Managing absence may also be about wider issues than the specific short- and long-term absence management policies and practices. Consideration should be given to all of the following tools to aid in managing absence and promoting attendance:
• Restricting sick pay & provisions
• Integrating medicals and attendance information into recruitment & selection procedures
• Ensuring contracts of employment have appropriate terms and conditions related to absence
• Communicating clear absence policies and procedures at induction stage
• Integrating attendance information into the Performance Management and Development System (PMDS)
• Restricting access to promotion / special assignments / bonuses
• Introducing attendance bonuses / rewards
• Introducing a range of measures to support employees health and well-being
• Flexible working policies
• Emergency / special leave
Wider Organisational Issues which affect Absenteeism
Managing absence is also about wider issues in the organization itself and the organisation should examine other factors which may be contributing to absence in the organization, such as:
• Leadership style and management practice
• Work organization and job design
• Organisation culture
• Employee morale and motivation
It is said that absence is a reflection of organizational health and many studies cite that job challenge, employee morale and motivation, work organization and job design, teamwork, organizational culture, leadership style and management practice will have either a positive or negative impact on the level of absenteeism in the organization.
Reasons for Absence
Various types of minor and more serious illnesses and stress related illnesses are identified in the research as the main causes of illness.
However, it should be borne in mind that not all absences are in fact caused by illness. The following were identified from the research as some other common reasons for absence:
• Domestic factors. Studies have found that greater female absence is due to their need to attend to domestic issues, especially those with children under the age of 16. Travel to work time also has an impact.
• Workplace factors. Research has shown that absence is lower when people work together in small teams; when leadership style and organization culture are healthy; when employees are motivated and challenged in their jobs; jobs are well designed and employee morale is high.
• Attitudinal and stress factors. Commitment to the job (created partly by the individual and also by line managers) and the sensitive handling of organizational change and efforts to improve job/career satisfaction has been shown to improve attendance.
The Impact of Absenteeism
Our findings indicate that many individuals and groups within the organization and the public who avail of services provided by the organization are adversely affected by employee absence. These effects are many and varied and are likely to impact in a negative way on many aspects of organisational functioning. The nature of the effects are such that they may be regarded as symptomatic of organisational ill health and/or as factors which foster a state of ill health in an organisation.
Absenteeism directly impacts the absentee, the line manager/supervisor and the co-workers of the absentee. It may have a negative impact on service delivery, especially where the absentee is a front-line employee providing a direct service to the public. Absenteeism also greatly increases the workload of the HR / payroll department.
Indirectly, absenteeism impacts on the organizational health of the organization and its ability to respond to change in its operating environment which requires commitment and motivation by its employees.
Absence Statistics from Around the World
A range of absence statistics were examined from Ireland, the UK and Great Britain, the EU, Australia and the Nordic countries.
It should be noted that there are no recent published absence statistics for the public sector / civil service in Ireland. In all countries examined, public sector and civil service absence is higher than private sector absence in those countries.
One study of absence in Great Britain indicates public sector absence runs at 5.7% compared to 7.8% in the private sector; a study in the UK indicates public sector absence is 10.7% compared to 7.8% in the private sector. According to another study, in 2004, the number of days lost to sickness absence in the civil service in the UK was 10.7 days. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in their most recent study published in 2007 indicate that the public sector absence rate is 8.4% compared to 3.7% in the private sector.
In the 26 councils in Northern Ireland 13.82 days were lost in 2006/07 due to sickness absence, an absence rate of 6.2%, and in the Northern Ireland Civil Service the days lost were 13.7 for the same period.
Studies in Australia indicate absence running at 8.9 days per employee in the Australian Public Service compared to 6.8 days in the private sector.
In the Nordic countries, absence runs at 4.1 days per employee in the public sector compared to 3.5 days in the private sector. In the Nordic countries, the level of absence is clearly well below that recorded for the UK, Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In the USA, one recent study indicates an absence rate of 3.5% overall.
In Ireland, the most recent study published in 2007 indicates an absence rate of 3.5% in the private sector. This compares with a 3.38% absence rate in 2004 with an average days lost per employee of 7.8.
In all the international studies examined, absence rates:
• increase with age, for example, one study shows an average number of days lost to be 8.6 for the 16-24 age group compared to 10.9 days for the 55-65 age group
• are higher for females, for example, one study shows male absence at 4.6% compared to 7.5% for females in Great Britain
• are higher for lower grades of employees, for example, one study shows an average of 13.3 days absence per employee for AA grades compared to 5.1 days for SEO grades and above
• are higher for manual workers compared to non-manual workers