The complex interrelationship of the causes of absence needs to be taken into account in its management. Many organisations have introduced policies for managing absence that focus on minimising short-term rather than long-term absence. The role of sickness in long-term absence has been given little priority in the past, as has the issue that shortterm absence, if badly handled, can lead to long-term absence. Typically long-term absence and short-term absence require different approaches. Attendance management policies need to take into account causes of absence, which may be identified by patterns of absence and by enabling individuals to be open about why they are not at work. Measures range from proactive methods intended to reduce the risk of ill health; measures intended to reduce spells of absence and those intended to reduce the length of absence. Typically there is a mix of processes both to discourage absence and positively to encourage attendance, but these work differently with those on long- and short-term sickness absence.
Whatever approach is chosen, there is a great need for consistency in the construction and implementation of absence management policies and procedures, not only in terms of ensuring fairness and as a support for any disciplinary action taken, but also in terms of providing employees with clear expectations about how absence will be tackled, and promoting an attendance culture. While different approaches work in different sectors and with different types of staff, there is a strong argument that the policies themselves need to be consistent in any organisation, to encourage employee acceptance and line manager support. For example Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) report the difficulties that a line manager in a production company experienced due to the fact that manufacturing staff were subject to more stringent absence procedures than other staff in the company.
Lack of consistency in implementation also weakens any policy and procedures. The role of the line manager is key and there is much emphasis on giving the line manager ownership of absence and attendance issues, with support from HR. Whatever policies and procedures are set up it is critical that the line manager feels ownership of these and applies them in practice. James and his colleagues (2002) found that two-thirds of their interviewees in a long-term absence management study noted that there were problems
in the way that line managers carried out their responsibilities. Managers frequently did not follow the guidelines in matters such as ongoing contact with absent employees, and consequently HR did not know what was going on and often had to step in and manage cases. James and his colleagues found that managers’ behaviour resulted from time pressures, lack of awareness of what the procedure was and lack of training.
It has been found that some measures to manage absence actually increase absence, so monitoring any new policies and procedures is critical. In terms of implementing a new absence strategy, the advice given by Huczynski and Fitzpatrick (1989) still holds good. The ALIEDIM process they suggest comprises the following stages:
- Assess the absence problem
- Locate the absence problem
- Identify and prioritise absence causes
- Evaluate the current absence control methods
- Design the absence control programme
- Implement the absence control programme
- Monitor the effectiveness of the absence control programme
The mix of policies and methods chosen will be specific to the needs of the individual organisation, and Case 15.2 on the book’s companion website, www.pearsoned.co.uk/ torrington explains the mix chosen by Newry and Mourne Police Unit in Ireland. Below are some of the most frequently used approaches to managing absence. Some are most appropriate for short-term absence, and some better suited to long-term absence, others meet the needs of both.
1. Accurate records
Managing absence is almost impossible without an accurate picture of current absence levels and patterns, which requires identification of areas of high absence and the most common reasons for absence in the organisation. The CIPD (2006) found that 60 per cent of those organisations reporting a reduction in absence said that this was due to improved monitoring. However, such data collection is more often reported in the public sector and manufacturing industry than in the rest of the private sector. The HSE (Silcox 2005a) in a bid to aid employers has produced a new computerised absence recording and management tool, SART, which it hopes will also encourage employers to record such data in a more consistent manner. Prior to its review of absence Carlsberg-Tetley (IDS 2001) did not have an accurate picture of sickness absence. Although some records were kept, absence was inconsistently measured and recorded, so there was no reliable information about level of absence and patterns. This was their first task in tackling absence. They decided to adopt the ‘Bradford factor’ method for scoring absence where both frequency of absence spells and absence duration are used but with the weight being given to the former. The Bradford factor formula, devised by Bradford University, is shown in Figure 15.2. For further information on statistics see IDS (2005).
Absence reports are frequently produced by HR and sent to line managers – and such reports will often include details of employees where trigger points have been hit and where intervention is required by the line manager. However, Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) found that the attention line managers gave to these reports varied, and some managers never even looked at the reports, because they did not agree that this was the best way to manage staff. As one manager commented, ‘I know my staff well enough not to need these reports … at the end of the day it all comes down to good management and knowing your staff’. Some managers argued that the reports were of little use because the employees they managed often worked long hours (beyond contract) and came in at weekends. It was felt that to punish such employees, who were clearly committed to the company, because they had reached certain absence levels was unreasonable, and would be counter-productive.
2. Absence review and trigger points
In order to focus attention on those with less satisfactory absence records many organisations identify trigger points in terms of absence spells or length, or Bradford factor scores which indicate that action is needed when an individual’s absence record hits the trigger. Such policies for reviewing absence appear to be critical in absence reduction, and the CIPD (2006) reports that 67 per cent of organisations reporting a decrease in absence levels put this down to tightened policies for reviewing absence. The HBOS Window on practice above describes the trigger points that they use. However, such trigger points may be well known to employees, and Connex (IDS 2001) found that some
employees were able to manipulate the system and regularly have absence levels just below the trigger point. To overcome this some organisations have a rolling year, rather than, say, a calendar year or a financial year, against which absence levels are assessed – on the grounds that it will be much more difficult for employees to keep track of their absence levels and manipulate the system. In fact Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) found organisations where the trigger system was avoided because it was felt that it would encourage employees to take off time until they were just under the trigger limit.
Some organisations have absence review groups, such as the absence champion network at HBOS, and the safety, health and absence unit at HM Customs and Excise (IDS 2001). While the role of these groups varies, they are frequently used to review all absences and identify those who have hit trigger points which will then require intervention, such as an absence review meeting with the employee.
3. Absence targets and benchmarking
Many organisations have absence targets phrased in terms of a reduction on current absence levels or a lower absence level to attain. However, the CIPD (2006) found that although 80 per cent of the organisations it surveyed believed that absence levels could be reduced, less than half of these had set targets for this, and only around 37 per cent benchmarked their absence levels against other organisations. An alternative approach, used by some organisations, is to give managers absence targets for their group, and tie this into their performance review and performance payments. This is the approach used in Connex (IDS 2001). Such overall and local targets need to be carefully used, however, so as not to give the impression to employees that absence is not allowed.
4. Training and support for line managers
Most organisations recognise that line managers play a key role in making absence procedures work and in reducing absence levels, and training is usually available when a new absence system is introduced. Connex (IDS 2001) has introduced a creative form of training. The company takes managers to an employment tribunal to view an absence- related case so that managers will understand the consequences of not dealing fairly and consistently with employees when they have to deal with similar situations at work. HM Customs and Excise (IDS 2001) uses training videos showing role plays of return to work interviews (see below). These demonstrate that such a meeting is not about accusation or recrimination. The idea is that managers watch the video with their team of supervisory staff and then discuss the issues that arise.
However, there is evidence that further training is needed. Both James et al. (2002) and Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) found managers who could not understand how ‘sickness’ could be managed, were scared of dealing with the situation and were embarrassed about asking personal questions about an employee’s state of health.
5. Absence notification procedures
Many organisations specify that when employees phone in as absent they must phone themselves, rather than asking another person to phone on their behalf. Many also specify that the employee must speak to their direct line manager or nominated representative. This means that such a telephone conversation can be the first stage of the absence management process. The conversation is welfare based and the intention is that the manager is able to ask about the nature of the problem and the anticipated date of return to work. Brakes (IDS 2005), interestingly, outsources potential absence reporting calls to a nurse helpline. The nurse gives confidential advice on how to manage symptoms but makes no recommendation about whether the individual should attend work or not. The nurse does, however, make a record of the call and notifies the appropriate line manager and also informs the line manager when the individual is ready to return to work. Apparently managers appreciate this burden being removed and concentrate their attention on those employees whose absence level has reached a trigger point.
Some organisations, such as First Direct (IDS 2001), make every effort to offer alternative work. For example, a telephone operator who cannot do telephone work with a sore throat may be able to do other work, and managers are asked to bear this in mind when employees phone in sick and to try to encourage the employees to come in, where appropriate, to carry out other tasks. This telephone conversation is also seen as an important tool in reducing the length of the absence.
6. Better understanding of the causes of absence
Analysis of absence data can show the primary causes of absence in any particular organisation and this may help employers develop absence management methods relevant to the most frequent causes. However, as we have said, the reasons employees give for absence will be those that the organisation considers legitimate, and further investigation may be necessary.
Organisations can encourage individuals to be open about the real cause for their absence, for example a minor illness may be used as an excuse to cover for caring responsibilities, a stressful working environment or alcohol or drug problems. However, this is easier said than done. The London Borough of Brent (IRS 2002b) has decided that the next stage in its efforts to tackle long-term absence is to try to unpick the causes of such absence. The employer has a feeling that the explanation may be partly related to issues of stress and the nature and organisation of the work. Helping employees to feel they can trust the employer sufficiently to admit the real cause of absence means that absence can then effectively be tackled by providing the appropriate form of support. Another key tool is risk assessment, so, for example, some organisations will assess the risk of back pain or stress and then training can be provided to meet identified needs.
The CIPD (2006) found that organisations used risk assessments, training, staff surveys, policy development, flexible working, employee assistance programmes, focus groups and changes in work organisation as methods to identify and reduce stress. The HSE encourage the use of focus groups for stress identification and management and more details and examples can be found in Silcox (2005b).
7. Ongoing contact during absence
Maintaining contact during absence is considered by many organisations as a method of reducing length of absence, demonstrating to the employee that the organisation is interested in them, and maintaining employee motivation. In some organisations it is the line manager who will keep in touch, and in others, such as Walter Holland and Son (IDS 2001), there are liaison officers who fulfil this role. Contact may be by telephone, and with longer periods of absence may involve home visits. For a useful summary of a wide range of methods of keeping in touch with employees who are off sick see Silcox (2005c). The Employers Organisation for Local Government (EO) (HSE 2002a) suggests that more effort should be made to keep in touch with employees after operations, partly to keep them up to date, but also to see if it is possible for them to come back to work on light duties or on a part-time basis. In working out its policy of visits, Bracknell Forest Council (IRS 2002a) pays due attention to the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. The council recommends one visit per month in working hours and considers this is reasonable in terms of the need to demonstrate ‘respect for private and family life’, and the wish to avoid putting pressure on employees to return to work too early.
8. Return to work interviews and formal absence reviews
Return to work interviews are increasingly used as a key part of attendance procedures, and CIPD (2006) reports that these were used by 81 per cent of organisations in 2006 compared with 57 per cent in 2000. CIPD also reports that these interviews are regarded as the most effective way of managing short-term absence. For some organisations these interviews are mandatory, even following a single day’s absence, but there is frequently some flexibility about the nature of the interview depending on the circumstances. In general the purposes of such interviews are identified as to: welcome the employee back and update them on recent events; check that the employee is well enough to resume normal duties and whether any further organisational support is needed; reinforce the fact that the employee has been missed and that attendance is a high priority in the organisation; and review the employee’s absence record. Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) found managers in their research who said that there was not time to concentrate on return to work interviews, as the practicalities of getting the job done were more critical. They also found a view among line managers that they were just so glad to get the employee back that they did not want to ‘rock the boat’. Where formal absence reviews are held these need to be handled with sensitivity and tact, and care needs to be taken so that the interview does not become recriminatory or accusatory.
9. Use of disciplinary procedures
If someone is genuinely ill and unable to work as a result, disciplinary action whether threatened or real is unlikely to bring about a return to work. It would not be desirable from the point of view of the employee or the employing organisation were this to be the case. There are, however, situations in which people who are too ill to work have to be dismissed. This is never a pleasant task, but it often falls to the HR manager to carry it out. The key is to make sure that the dismissal is carried out in a legally sound manner. This issue is covered in greater detail in Chapters 10 and 25, so it is only necessary here to summarise the main points:
- Dismissing someone who is unable to work because of ill health is potentially fair under unfair dismissal law.
- It is necessary to warn the individual concerned that he or she may be dismissed if he or she does not return to work and to consult with the individual ahead of time to establish whether a return in the foreseeable future is feasible.
- It is necessary to act on whatever medical advice is available.
- In larger organisations, except where a person’s job is very specialised or senior, it is normally considered reasonable to refrain from dismissing a sick employee for at least six months.
- In any case no dismissal should occur if the employee falls under the definition of ‘disabled’ as set out in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In these cases an employee should only be dismissed once the employer is wholly satisfied that no reasonable adjustments could be made to accommodate the needs of the sick employee so as to allow them to return to work.
Where someone is persistently absent for short periods of time, the course of action taken will depend on whether or not there is a genuine underlying medical condition which explains most of the absences. If so, the matter should be handled in the same way as cases of long-term absence due to ill health outlined above. If not, then it is feasible for the employer to take a tougher line and to threaten disciplinary action at an earlier stage. It is quite acceptable in law to dismiss someone whose absence record is unacceptably high, provided the individual has been warned ahead of time and given a fair opportunity to improve his or her attendance. It is also necessary to treat different employees in a consistent fashion. Taking disciplinary action in the form of issuing a formal warning is therefore credible and likely to be successful.
10. Absence levels and performance assessments
Some organisations have communicated to employees the message that attendance levels are a measure of their performance so they are included in annual assessments. Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) found that in the three retail companies in their case sample, employees were assessed via a separate rating category on their absence levels. In addition employees with unacceptable absence levels would not be put forward for transfers or promotion. At HBOS (IDS 2005) line managers have a key performance objective relating to employee absence, reflecting their enhanced roles in managing absence.
11. Attendance bonus and rewards
Some organisations pay bonuses direct to employees on the basis of their attendance records. For example Richmondshire District Council (Silcox 2005d) have adopted a scheme where staff receive an additional day’s leave for 100 per cent attendance in the previous year. The council found that, coupled with other absence management measures, absence was reduced from 10 days to 8 days in the first year. The council argue not only that this is a cost saving, but that an anticipated day’s holiday is much easier to manage than an unanticipated day’s sickness absence. Connex (IDS 2001) will pay a quarterly attendance bonus of £155 at the end of each 13-week period for full attendance and an additional lump sum of £515 if an employee has had no sickness absence during a full calendar year. In addition Connex sends out letters commending employees for improving their absence record. The company considers that its absence scheme is a success as 80 per cent of eligible employees now qualify for payments. However, some managers do not support attendance bonuses as they feel that employees are already paid to turn up, and they are effectively being paid twice. Connex also found managers who felt that attendance bonuses were a signal to employees that managers cannot control the work environment themselves and that they have relinquished all responsibility for managing absence. On the other hand, Dunn and Wilkinson (2002) found that managers felt attendance bonuses were unfair as they penalised those employees who were genuinely ill. A further problem is that such rewards may encourage employees to come into work when they are genuinely ill which is not good for either the individual or the organisation. Such rewards therefore remain controversial.
12. Occupational health support, health promotion and well-being
A number of organisations carry out pre-employment screening to identify any potential health problems at this stage. Others screen employees for general fitness and for potential job hazards, such as working with radiation, or VDUs. General screening may involve heart checks, blood tests, eye tests, well-woman/man clinics, ergonomics and physiotherapy, and discussions about weight and lifestyle, such as smoking, drinking and fitness levels. The value of such screening is that problems can be identified at an early stage so that the impact on sickness absence will be minimised. In some organisations positive encouragement will be given to employees to follow healthy lifestyles, such as healthy eating, giving up smoking, taking up exercise routines. Increasing numbers of employers offer exercise classes and or an on-site gym, or alternatively pay for gym membership. Healthier canteen menus are appearing, and healthier snacks in some vending machines. However the CIPD (2006) found that barriers to such wellbeing initiatives were lack of resources, lack of senior management buy-in, and lack of employee buy-in, especially in manufacturing and production. The government has provided some funding (together with other organisations) for nine health promotion projects in England, and a good example of one of these is the ‘Be Active 4 life’ Programme at Exeter City Council which will be evaluated soon after the time of writing by a team from Loughborough University. Details of this project and the eight others are provided by Silcox (2005e).
For long-term absence the CIPD (2006) reported that the involvement of occupational health professionals was seen to be the most effective management tool, although HSE (2002c) shows that only one in seven workers has the benefit of comprehensive occupational health support. However, such support does not have to be in-house and can be purchased: this is the course followed by the London Borough of Brent (IRS 2002b).
Physiotherapists, counsellors and psychologists are often employed, and the occupational health role may include remedial fitness training and exercise therapy for those recovering from an illness. Stress counselling is increasingly being provided and if this is offered as part of an employee assistance programme can reduce the liability in stress- related personal injury cases. Also training in stress management may be offered.
James and his colleagues (2002) found that the role of occupational health workers was ambiguous and problematic. Their respondents suggested that while occupational health professionals worked on behalf of the employer, they tended to see themselves as representing employee interests. They also found that employees were very sceptical about visiting occupational health workers as they saw it as the first step in the termination of their employment.
13. Changes to work and work organisation
Many employers appear to offer flexible working hours, part-time work and working from home. Employers also sometimes consider offering light duties or redeployment. However, James and his colleagues (2002) found that operational factors often limited what was possible. In the three manufacturing organisations they visited it was not always feasible to offer light duties or make adjustments to the workplace. They also found that other departments were reluctant to accept someone who was being redeployed after sickness, partly because they felt the employee might have lost the work habit, and also because there might be problems with pay if the levels of the old and new job differed. They also noted that there might be no budget to pay for adaptations to equipment or to purchase further equipment.
14. Practical support
There are many ways in which the employer can provide practical support to minimise sickness absence. Many organisations have experienced frustrations while employees are on waiting lists for diagnostic procedures and operations. In order to speed up medical treatment that employees need some organisations are prepared to pay the medical costs for employees where there is a financial case to do this, for example the Corporation of London (Silcox 2005f). Training in areas such as stress management and
time management may help employees minimise feelings of stress, childcare support may simplify childcare arrangements, and phased return to work after a long-term absence is also a useful strategy. For more details on phased return to work and some examples see Silcox (2005g).
Source: Torrington Derek, Hall Laura, Taylor Stephen (2008), Human Resource Management, Ft Pr; 7th edition.