Back to basics... Absence management

Our back to basics series brings you top tips from industry experts on the bread and butter areas of HR

Why does it matter?

Sickness absence is a huge issue for organisations for many reasons. It can lead to increased costs for the business and decreased levels of productivity due to lost working time. High levels of sickness absence could also be an indicator of concerns within the organisation, such as stress-related illness potentially being linked to working environments or poor work/life balance. This in turn can lead to high levels of employee turnover. By proactively managing sickness absence and incorporating it into wider wellbeing programmes, HR teams can send a positive message to employees about the culture and how important staff are to the business.


Create a robust return-to-work process. Make sure your line managers feel comfortable and confident to have these conversations each and every time a team member returns to work after absence. Return-to-work chats help provide genuine support to those who need it and potentially deter people from taking sick days when they are not genuinely unwell.

Provide employees with support in proactively managing sickness themselves. This could involve providing portals of information on things such as how to fight a cold, seasonal flu jabs, a well-communicated employee assistance programme (EAP), or technology that helps them book a GP appointment.

Understand the data. Find a way to understand how much working time is lost due to sickness and why. If lots of time is being lost, this is where HR needs to create proactive plans to reduce it. If time is being lost for reasons such as stress, there may be bigger cultural issues at play in the organisation. HR should be at the forefront of addressing the wider situation.

Offer flexible working if it is practical for the business. Flexible working is a great way to deal with changing weather patterns, maintain productivity and help keep employees motivated. Extreme weather can lead to difficult commutes or uncomfortable working conditions. On these days, you are potentially going to get much more out of your team members if they work remotely.


Forget about the power of a comprehensive sickness absence policy. Communicate it well and this will set out your expectations, providing guidance for line managers on what they need to do when someone in their team calls in sick.

Assume that everyone is pulling a sickie. If you’ve got a culture of trust and open communication, individuals are less likely to want to take time off for non-genuine reasons. The HSE reported that in 2018, 15.4 million days were lost due to reasons associated with mental health. These aren’t visible sickness conditions and sometimes are not the easiest to talk about.

Assume that everyone isn’t pulling a sickie. A key reason for sickness is of course sickness. Yet without trying to cast aspersions, human nature (and data) also say that if it’s hot, sunny and a Tuesday after a bank holiday, even the most reliable employees might consider having a longer break.

Compare one person to another. Everyone is an individual and will deal with sickness in different ways. Return-to-work conversations can help line managers get to the bottom of how best to support individuals long term.

Clare Avery is head of people and culture at e-days

This piece appears in the December 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk