The healthy response to sickness absence


Good one. But this approach will be challenged by the government or the union since this will be seen as change not favouring workers.

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Sickness absence is a cost few businesses can afford to carry in the long term. So how can you best minimise its impact and keep your employees healthy?

When we recently surveyed businesses about sickness absence we discovered that the average number of days lost per year per employee was five. On top of that, two-fifths of companies reported an increase in long-term sickness absence. Given that most businesses try to hit a target sickness absence rate of just 2% you can see that a considerable number are way short of that. That failure to address employee wellbeing and sickness rates has the potential to prove expensive in terms of lower productivity, to say nothing of its overall impact on employee morale.

So where do you need to start in addressing this issue? Data is the obvious place. Until you understand the scope of the problem how can you go about addressing its root causes?

But for some this isn’t easy. Many businesses don’t have consistent data to start with, particularly those with split sites or where different job roles make comparisons difficult. Even if you have data it makes sense to re-evaluate it from time to time. So where should you start in terms of assessing the issue of sickness absence?

At Make Business we advise using a Bradford Factor Scoring process as a baseline for understanding sickness absence and putting in place effective data-gathering schemes. We work with HR departments on assessing the following key areas:

  • Reviewing all recorded sickness absence.
  • Quantifying hours lost and associated costs.
  • Defining absences by frequency, age, division, time of year, job role, site, shift, time with organisation etc. to identify patterns and problem areas.
  • Identifying the root causes of absence, from processes and procedures to cultural issues.
  • Coaching and developing line managers to understand the impact absence has across the business.
  • The implementation of an employee wellbeing audit.

Capability not discipline

It’s important that this isn’t seen as a disciplinary issue. While many businesses make sickness absence part of their disciplinary policies, we believe that this should be addressed as a ‘capability’ issue. Long-term sickness in particular can have many and varied causes, most of which (such as work-related stress) are hardly helped by being dealt with under ‘disciplinary’ procedures.

Better then to have a capability policy. This should address all aspects of absence and be fully in line with current employment legislation. We also feel it's best to address long-term sickness absence under a different policy. Any separate long-term absence policy should set out how managers handle ongoing sickness absence issues, such as what should trigger the first written caution (e.g. 10 working days off, or three or more absences over 12 months), what should signal a final written caution, and what should constitute dismissal.

This isn’t the end of any effort to address your capability policy, but just the start. To achieve the highest level of best practice here are three other measures you should be putting in place.

First, set up an absence management review group that looks at sickness absences on a monthly basis. This is good practice and doesn’t involve trade union representatives.

Secondly, even when the best sickness absence policies are in place, if managers aren’t properly trained or engaged with their importance they will fail. HR may want to hold in-house training for the HR team and managers, or even individual coaching and mentoring. This bespoke training could introduce specific KPIs and targets for managers to reduce absence. Linking these targets with performance management programmes and appraisals is key.

Finally, no sickness absence reduction programme is complete without tackling the common causes of high levels of sickness absence. An occupational health and wellbeing programme should be developed based on the data. For example, if a certain demographic of workers make up the largest portion of sickness absences the wellbeing programme could target the root causes: from flu vaccinations to stress management initiatives.

Whatever your targets for reducing sickness absence and improving wellbeing, working with a professional organisation with experience of dealing with all aspects of these issues can help you create a policy that works for you and your employees. They can then see clearly that you have a fair and proper policy that supports them and their long-term wellbeing. That not only motivates them, but ensures that the whole business benefits in the longer term by the effective management of sickness absence.

Sharon Broughton is head of HR consultancy at Make Business


Good one. But this approach will be challenged by the government or the union since this will be seen as change not favouring workers.

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