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Absence management technology behind the times, says Professor Cary Cooper

David Woods , 02 Feb 2012

Cary Cooper

While technology has changed the way we work, absence management procedures have not kept pace, creating serious welfare, management and productivity issues, according to the major report released today, Sick Notes, by Ellipse, the group risk insurer, and Professor Cary Cooper (pictured).

The research finds the myriad current approaches are not working, meaning employers are failing to deal with the full risks that employee absence and ill health bring to the workplace.

Sick Notes, commissioned to mark the launch of InteractPlus, Ellipse's unique product integrating disability income protection and absence management, identifies a number of trends and coins some new phrases to help identify what is happening in the modern day workplace.

Sick employees are getting 'lost' in the system, illnesses are allowed to spiral into chronic conditions and line managers are burdened with a responsibility they are often ill-equipped or too 'time poor' to handle. The majority of employers (70%) rely on non-HR personnel to handle sickness, with half (45%) of managers admitting that their people responsible for absence management are either not the best equipped to deal with it. Worryingly, nearly half of managers (41%) say absence procedure is not followed at all.

The impact of 'always on' technology has led to many changes in workplace culture, including a growing grey area between the genuine need to take time off to recover and the pressure to keep working. Gone are the days when you sleep off a bout of flu: today we are a nation of STOICs (Sick Though Often Inbox Checking), who are neither fully off work nor fully working. Seventy per cent of line managers and the majority of workers believe working from home more frequently (where practical) would reduce hours lost to sickness.

The prevailing economic climate means working sick is now commonplace, with 80% of people working ill. This is despite the fact that 80% of employers claim to believe that presenteeism - attending work while sick - is a bad thing. On the other hand, while presenteeism is pushing some employees to the brink, over half of workers still confess to 'pulling a sickie' when they weren't ill.

The stress-induced absence of Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta-Osório and the death of Gary Speed have brought mental illness - so often swept under the carpet - to national attention and it seems managers and employees are beginning to understand it better (60% of line managers compared to 48% of workers). Managers claim to be at least as sympathetic as their employees towards a range of different illnesses.

Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Business School, said: "Affecting all employers and all but the very hardiest workers, illness is just a fact of working life but it's not always an inevitability.

"We should be trying to prevent long-term absence as much as possible and we can do that in a few ways. Firstly, by looking at ways of flexible working to help those who are able to work but perhaps not able to come into the office or work set hours. Secondly, we need to encourage employees to not feel obliged to come in to work when they are ill as we know a culture of presenteeism is damaging.

"In the longer term employers can address absence by ensuring that they do not instil a culture of long working hours, which ultimately lead to demoralized staff and increased sickness, and by training line managers to be fully able to deal with absence management rather than leaving it to chance.

"A few small actions can make a big difference to absence and I urge employers to ask themselves honestly whether their current process is fit for purpose."

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