A Guide to Absence Management

Absence management off with Flu

If you own a small business or manage a team, you will already be aware that employee sickness absence and ill health is not always a simple matter. The past couple of years have been more challenging than most, but even now that we seem to be over the peak of the pandemic, this is still a real problem.

You might be surprised to discover that the number of fit notes issued by NHS medical professionals has hit an all-time high as the UK slowly recovers from the pandemic. Research conducted by law firm GQ|Littler, based on NHS data for the year ending September 2022, showed an 11 per cent increase in the number of fit notes issued – up to 10.4 million. They consider the most likely causes are the cost-of-living crisis, the aftereffects of the pandemic, an increase in illnesses as restrictions were relaxed and more people mixed again, and employers allowing people back into the workplace once Covid restrictions were lifted.

On top of this, according to the latest research by the CIPD stress continues to be one of the main causes of short and long-term absence. Overall 79% of respondents report some stress-related absence in their organisation in 2022, and this figure rose to 90% of large organisations (with more than 250 employees). Overall, 79% of respondents report some stress-related absence in their organisation in 2022, and this figure rose to 90% of large organisations (with more than 250 employees).

With that in mind, is it time that you took a serious look at the ways you can reduce sickness absence in your business?

What is Absence Management?

Absence – or attendance – management encourages you to look at the ways you can decrease the amount of unplanned absence that occurs in your business. It is not simply a matter of never having any absences from work as employees will need to take time off for sickness, bereavement, injury, or someone in their care.

However, there are strategies you can employ to encourage or improve good health and wellbeing; these play a crucial role in absence management, alongside the difficult issues such as disciplinaries for excessive or persistent absence, or those cases where you know your employee is taking advantage of your absence procedures.

The effect of unplanned absence

There is a financial cost to unplanned absence, such as sick pay, loss of productivity, and disruption, but it can also have a huge impact on the rest of your team, too.

When a member of your team is regularly off sick, it can cause the rest of the team to feel resentment towards that person and the manager too. There may be feelings of dissatisfaction, increased stress because they will generally be covering the absent employee’s workload, and frustration.

High levels of unplanned absence can be a sign of an underlying issue within your business. For instance, are people off sick because they are genuinely ill, or due to:

  • -Not feeling competent at their job
  • -bullied by a colleague or manager
  • -the working environment is just too stressful or even toxic
  • -the employee is simply the wrong hire

There can be lot of reasons for someone being absent from work apart from being unwell. If you track sickness, you can spot the patterns or problems.  We will discuss how to do that later.

Review your policy

When did you last review your sickness absence policy? It is important to review on a regular basis to ensure you are providing your employees with clear guidance on what they need to do when they are sick and what you as an employer can provide as support.  It is also important that you have things worded correctly, so that while employees know they are entitled to time off when they are unwell, they are aware that any abuse of the policy could result in disciplinary action.

You should include:

  • -how sickness should be reported (telephone call, a text, or an email),
  • -when it should be reported (before 9am, for example,
  • -who it should be reported to,
  • -make it clear that you will record and measure data on any unplanned absence.
  • -any sick pay entitlement within the business,
  • -what happens with frequent absence or an abuse of sick leave. This should include when you -might feel it is appropriate to take disciplinary action,
  • -conduct Return to Work (RTW) interviews with everyone, and
  • -in cases of extended sick leave, it may be appropriate to re-onboard employees or have a phased -return to help them settle back into their role more easily.

Unauthorised Absence

Your policy should also explain what may happen in cases of unauthorised absence, such as failing to attend work unexpectedly, and the employee has not contacted their line manager.  There may reasons for this such as a medical emergency, where it is not possible to let you know immediately, but if there is not a reasonable excuse as to why someone has failed to attend work, it may be appropriate to take disciplinary action.

Before you can start a disciplinary procedure, however, you must conduct a full investigation into the absence, and you must always act fairly and reasonably to avoid potential unfair dismissal claims.

Ensure that a copy of your sickness absence policy is accessible to everyone within the business, and if you make any amendments to your current policy, all employees are notified and sent a copy of the updated version in reasonable time.

Recording unplanned absence

It is a really good idea to record any instances of unplanned absence in your business, rather than waiting for an employee’s absence to become a problem.

By doing this, it means you’ll be able to spot any patterns in absence, and therefore highlight any problems long before you might do otherwise. For example, perhaps someone takes every third Friday off sick, or maybe one of your teams has a much higher rate of absence than the others. When you record this data, it will become easy to identify areas of concern and give you a better opportunity to tackle and resolve potential problems.

 The Bradford Factor

One method that you may use to record and monitor absence is the Bradford Factor. It supports the principle that repeat absences have a greater operational impact than long term sickness. (A weighting is the impact that an event will have on the overall running of the normal business. If you give something a larger weighting score, it has a bigger impact).

Simply put, you record instances of absence x days absent over 52 weeks. This means that someone who takes frequent short periods of absence will achieve a higher score than someone who takes more days over fewer instances.

You can apply your own threshold measures to the scale, depending on the potential impact absence will have on your business.

An example of the Bradford Factor formula:

Lucy has three instances of illness over a year and has been absent for two days for each instance.

3 (instances) x 3 (instances) x 6 (total days off) = 54

Simon has one instance of sickness but has been absent for a total of 7 days.

1 (instance) x 1 (instance) x 7 (days off) = 7

In this case, whilst Simon has taken more days off sick, Lucy has a much higher score because she has had more instances of illness.

The Bradford Factor can be a fair and objective measure however for employees with disabilities or long-standing issues it can be perceived as unfair. You need to individually assess each case and act reasonably when reading the results.

The cause of absence

There will certainly be a genuine reason behind most employee absences from your business, but it is important that you look at the cause behind each absence. Failing to do so could lead to bigger issues that may be more difficult to resolve.

The causes to look out for are:

  • -absence due to illness or injury
  • -absences that are likely to be long or short term
  • -taking time off to care for sick children, or parents, or a partner
  • -someone is being bullied by a colleague
  • -your employees need additional support from the business and your managers.

Other areas to look out for

Leavism – This is where people refuse to take their annual leave, or work instead of resting when they do, and it’s usually most noticeable when people continue to check and reply to emails, check-in on projects, or take work-related calls while off. These employees feel they’re ultra-committed to the job, but it is extremely bad for their health and wellbeing and will soon lead to burnout and other health issues if not carefully tackled by management.

Presenteesim – This is where an employee continues to be present at work, despite being genuinely ill. This is not only bad for their health and wellbeing, but it also puts others at risk of illness, which could cause more problems for your business.

It is important that you and your managers are aware of the above and delicately broach the subject with employees where necessary.

Ill health dismissal

On occasion, it may be necessary to dismiss an employee on the grounds of ill health. However, this is a last resort measure, and you must take reasonable steps to help get your employee back to work first.

These steps may include:

  • -approaching their GP for a report on their health (only with your employee’s permission),
  • -arranging an occupational health assessment, or
  • -making reasonable adjustments to enable them to do their job.

The Equality Act 2010 states that a person must not be discriminated against because they have a disability, or someone thinks that they do, or because they are connected to someone with a disability.

In some cases, this may not work, and your only option may be to dismiss your employee. In these cases, it is important to act with sensitivity and fairness. If you need support on this type of situation, please contact us for help.

5 practical ways you can reduce absence

You can minimise absence at work by following these 5 steps:

1. Be more flexible

Providing your employees with more flexibility at work can mean the difference between someone calling in sick with a sniffle, or them working from home instead.

It could mean that someone works from 7am – 3pm, so that they can still collect their children from school.

Offering more flexibility, whether that’s bringing in a hybrid working policy, or flexitime, could dramatically decrease the number of employee sick days.

2. Be clearer with your guidelines 

Make it clear what your expectations are.  For instance, coming into work with the flu is not acceptable and is a reason to be absent from work, however taking a whole day off to attend a 20-minute doctor’s appointment would not be reasonable.

3. Introduce a wellbeing initiative

Gym memberships, or subscriptions to mental health apps can be useful benefits to offer your employees if you can afford them, however there are cheaper alternatives such as encouraging employees to have catch up meetings while taking a walk, swapping the office doughnuts for a fruit bowl, and saving the cakes for special occasions only.

You could even create a company challenge, to see which team can walk, swim, or cycle the most miles each month. Little things can have a big impact.

4. Introduce better communication

It might be helpful to schedule regular 121 meetings to open lines of honest, confidential communication between employees and managers.  Managers would then be more aware of any poor mental or physical health, and able to approach employees to see how they can help.

5. Train your managers

You and your managers are the frontline in keeping your people well and healthy, but they need the tools to identify and tackle any issues in the most sensitive manner. A good balance is crucial to ensure your business is not affected with presenteeism or absenteeism.

As always, a careful and measured approach is in your best interests when it comes to dealing with absence. If you would like any further advice, we would be glad to help. Just give us a call to arrange a conversation.

 Albany HR can support with –

  • -Absence Management Policy
  • -Implementing an HR System to record all absences.
  • -Long term absence support
  • -Wellbeing Initiatives and policy
  • -People strategy

Get in touch to discuss if our services can support you. Email us at letstalk@albanyhr.com or call for a chat – 0131 364 4186.