Key Factors in Reducing Short-term Workplace Absence

Posted in : HR Updates on 17 February 2016
Neil McLeese
Personnel & Training Services Ltd
Issues covered:

It’s ironic (and a little sad) that the inspiration for this article came to me while I was off work due to a dose of the dreaded man-flu! It got me thinking that the factors in managing short –term workplace absence are simple and a key area where HR Professionals can make a significant difference to the operation and financial health of their organisations.

When you consider that the median cost of absence per employee in 2015 was £554 (CIPD; Absence Management 2015) you can understand the financial pressure this can cause particularly in organisations that do not effectively manage their absence rates. Then there are the logistical problems of trying to get absent employees work covered and the morale issues this can cause if there are a number of persistent offenders.

Now, I am not unrealistic enough to think that absence at work can be eliminated but when 30% of organisations surveyed by the CIPD report that “non-genuine absence” is one of the top causes of short term absence for manual workers and 23% report the same for non-manual workers I know there are still things we can do to improve.

While every organisation manages absence differently, whether as a result of the type of business they are in or the administrative resources available, the key principles in reducing short term absence are consistent:

1. Have an Absence Policy

This should be clear, easily understood and supports the business objectives. It will explain the rights and obligations of employees when they are absent due to sickness. For example:

  • Who within the Company the employee should notify, how they should notify that person and when are they expected to make contact. I would strongly recommend that employees are advised that text messages and email are not acceptable means of communication as this can make it too easy for employees who just want to ‘pull a sickie’.
  • When they are required to complete a self-certification form and/or obtain a fit note from their Doctor.That the Company reserves the right to require employees to attend a consultation with an Occupational Health Consultant (with the employees consent) or to request a report from the employee’s doctor (with the employees consent).
  • Details of any trigger levels that the Company is using in relation to absence.
  • That the Company conducts return to work interviews.
  • That reasonable adjustments may be necessary to assist an employee to return to work as soon as practicable.
  • Guidance on absence during adverse events (for example bad snow) or popular sporting events.

2. Measure your absence

The old adage ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ is extremely true when dealing with absence. Please have a look at three possible methods below and how these can be calculated.

‘Lost time’ rate shows the percentage of total time available which has been lost due to sickness absence and can be calculated by department or location in order to highlight areas of concern. The formulae for calculating this is: Total absence (hours / days) in the period x 100 Possible total (hours or days) in the period

Frequency rate shows an individual frequency rate by counting the number of employees who take at least one period of absence in the reference period rather that the total number of periods of absence and express it as a percentage. For me, the downsides of this measure are that it doesn’t give any indication of the length of each absence period or any employees who have more than one period of absence. However, the formulae to calculate this rate is: Number of periods of absence in reference period x 100 Number of employees

The Bradford Factor identifies persistent short-term absence for individuals and is therefore a useful measure of the disruption caused by this type of absence. The formula is:

S x S x D

Where S = number of spells of absence in 52 weeks taken by an individual

And D = number of days absence taken by the individual in the previous 52 weeks

For example:

6 one-day absences: 6 x 6 x 6 = 216
1 twenty day absence: 1 x 1 x 20 = 20

Whatever method you use measuring absence is important. But at what point should action start? That is why it is equally important to have trigger levels defined from the start. 

3. Implement trigger levels

It is up to each Company to define their trigger levels but care should be taken to ensure that they are not unreasonable (for example ‘1 day off in a year’ would definitely be unreasonable).

Some Companies will have a very straight forward set of trigger points (for example more than 3 periods of absence or more than 10 working days absent or an unacceptable pattern of absence in a 12 month rolling period). Others, who use the Bradford Factor will have a number of points as their trigger level (for example 160).

But what happens once the trigger levels are breached?

It is important to take action but this doesn’t mean automatically issuing disciplinary warnings as this would be unfair and potentially discriminatory. What I mean by this is formally sit down with the employee to investigate their absence record and ascertain if there are underlying medical reasons for the absence. If there are, then a referral to an Occupational Health Consultant may be a good move to ensure that their role isn’t aggravating their condition.

You will also need to take into consideration if the employee has a disability and whether the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applies such as the need to make a reasonable adjustment. A reasonable adjustment in this type of situation may include removing absences relating to their condition from the absence record.

If there aren’t any underlying issues and there is the feeling that the absences are “nongenuine” then you might consider referring the matter on as a potential disciplinary case.

The benefit of acting on trigger levels like this is that it allows HR and Management to proactively identify problems and control the solution of them. Another benefit is that it discourages the repeated poor attenders from reducing their absences (i.e. to avoid breaching the trigger levels) as they know that disciplinary action could be a consequence.

While this is all good on paper the key to making all of this work in the real World is applying the standards consistently and ensuring that it is being used across all areas of the Company.

4. Return to Work (RTW) Interviews

These are widely regarded as one of the most effective management tools for managing absence. It allows managers to identify short term absence issues early on and start a discussion with the employee to try and resolve any underlying problems. However it is vital that RTWs are carried out for every period of absence and they are done consistently across Companies.

The Labour Relations Agency’s ‘Advice on Managing Sickness Absence’ suggests that the purpose of return to work interviews is to:

  • Welcome employee back
  • Check they are well enough to be at work
  • Discuss the details of an agreed return to work based on advice given by the GP in the Statement of Fitness for Work having already agreed the return to work in principle by talking through the issues on the phone or face to face
  • Update employees on any news while they were off
  • Identify the cause of the absence and find out whether they have a disability and whether the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 applies such as the need to make a reasonable adjustment
  • Establish if their sickness is work-related and whether there are any health and safety issues you need to address

To this I would suggest it would be good, at that stage, to find out if the employee visited the doctor, what (in any) medication they were prescribed and whether there are any side-effects to the medication.

As well as the benefits detailed above, having all of this information documented also helps if you need to resort to the disciplinary procedures as you will have a bundle of contemporary evidence to rely on.

This article is correct at 17/02/2016

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Neil McLeese
Personnel & Training Services Ltd

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