A lot of this situation is caused by stress, which is now the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual workers – hardly surprising really, given the current high levels of uncertainty over jobs, pensions and pay freezes.
But staff absence costs businesses dear, with government figures showing that it is damaging the economy to the tune of £100 billion per year – much of which is borne by the individual businesses concerned.
What this all means in reality is that it is vital for HR Departments and contact centre managers to try and get a grip on the situation and here are 10 suggestions to help:
Devise a clear policy and communicate it
If you don’t already have one, develop a clear absence policy with the help of line managers, staff representatives and trade unions if necessary.
The aim is to ensure that both personnel and managers know where they stand, which means that the policy should cover things such as procedures for reporting absence, the circumstances in which a medical certificate is required as well as company sick-pay arrangements.
Importantly, your policy should also spell out what happens if employees don’t comply with it.
For them to be able to do so, however, means that the policy will need to be well communicated – not just to staff but also to line managers. The latter will be the people who most influence how seriously the policy is taken and they will also be the first to realise if there’s a problem.
Record and measure absence rates
The first step towards dealing with high absence rates is to understand just how bad the problem is and identify any trends.
The most widely-used tool for evaluating persistent short-term absence is the ‘Bradford Factor’. On the basis that frequent short absences are more disruptive than occasional long ones, it calculates disruption levels based on the number of instances of absence and the total number of days involved.
Minimise work-related illness
According to the Health and Safety Executive, more than 22 million working days were lost during the year to March 2011 because of illness caused or made worse by an individual’s job.
As a result, it makes sense to try and ensure that working environments are as safe and healthy as possible. Useful practices in this context include not only undertaking standard safety assessments and ergonomics activity, but also providing healthcare and counselling facilities.
Make procedures easy to comply with…
Organisations that can offer their staff flexitime tend to experience far lower levels of absence than those that don’t. Even where the provision of full flexitime isn’t possible, giving employees some leeway around the hours that they work can help.
Many unauthorised absences are triggered by domestic responsibilities – and, while unforeseen crises are often to blame, situations can sometimes be planned for if workers know that they will be able to make the time up elsewhere.
Some organisations even allow personnel to book a certain number of days of unpaid leave off each year, which again makes it easier to plan in advance. …and difficult to cheat
It’s important to strike a balance between making absence management procedures easy to comply with and still difficult to cheat. Absence can be a sensitive issue, however, so it’s important that procedures are implemented fairly across the board.
For example, some employers routinely phone employees on their home number at some point during the day – and if staff know that they can’t get away with a day off at the firm’s expense, they are a lot less likely to take unauthorised time off.
Reward people for being present and correct
Many schools reward their pupils for high attendance rates and a similar strategy can succeed in the workplace too.
Some organisations have seen attendance rates improve dramatically after introducing attendance-related bonuses.
Other possible incentives could include a little extra ‘guilt-free’ time off, certificates or awards – even shopping vouchers or outings. Using carrots as well as sticks tends to be the most effective approach.
Invoke peer pressure
Small organisations typically have better attendance records than larger ones, with the key reason being that staff members tend to feel more responsibility towards their colleagues.
But dividing workers up into teams can have the same impact, while the effect can be boosted still further by coming up with incentives for teams that show a good attendance record – and penalties for those that don’t.
Conduct return-to-work interviews
An important element of most effective absence management policies is the return-to-work interview. It is a chance to find out more about the cause of an individual’s absence as well as discuss whether there is anything that can be done to help ease them back into work.
Such interviews can also be an opportunity to welcome the staff member back and give an update on any important news that they may have missed.
Importantly, however, return-to-work interviews can likewise act as a deterrent. Employees are a great deal less likely to try and take time off without good reason if they know that they will have to explain themselves in a face-to-face with their line manager and/or HR.
Manage long-term sickness carefully
Many long-term absences are caused by specific injuries or illnesses that simply have to run their course. Others such as back problems and stress are notorious, however, and can run on and on unless addressed.
One of the most effective ways to deal with this scenario, however, is to maintain regular communication with the individual concerned as it is important to ensure that they continue to feel part of the team.
Employers can also consider offering a phased return to work or making changes to the office environment in order to reduce any potential difficulties.
Automate the process
A good absence management software application can do an awful lot of the work for you in that they monitor staff absence levels, identify trends and indicate possible causes.
They will also remove a great deal of the administrative burden involved in processing holiday requests and calculating annual allowances. Any required policies such as warnings or return to work interviews can likewise be triggered automatically.
Another advantage is that employees can put in holiday requests easily as well as keep track of their remaining entitlement, which minimises simple administrative errors.
On more of a psychological level, however, they are more likely to stick to the rules if they know that their absence rates are being monitored and penalties invoked by computer rather than a friendly line manager. They will also be less inclined to resent their managers if they are disciplined, receive an official warning or whatever.