Absence is disruptive, there is no doubt about it and the most common concern business owners talk to me about. It’s unfortunately one of the necessary evils of employing people. People are not machines, they do not operate on top form everyday, they get sick and things happen.
Why are people absent?
When we talk about absence, the first thing we think about is sickness, but that is not the only reason for absence. Firstly from a purely legal perspective there are a number of reasons people are entitled to time off work, some of which is planned and others unplanned. In terms of managing absence we’re largely talking about unplanned absences, these are the most disruptive. Unplanned absence is exactly that, it impacts the plans. You plan your resources, the number of people you need to do a job, how and when the task will be done then someone doesn’t turn up and changes have to be made.
Aside from sickness, employees are entitled to absence for an unexpected incident involving a dependant, this could be a dependant having an accident or childcare not being available. The entitlement is to unpaid time off and to deal with the unexpected incident only.
It’s crucial to know why someone is absent, is there a statutory right to that time off? Should it be paid (because there is either a statutory right or a contractual right), was it reasonable for that time off? Could that time off have been planned or planned better? Recording the accurate reason for absence is vital if you’re going to be able to deal with an excessive absence issue.
1. Focus on reducing the impact
What do we mean by managing absence? In most cases what we really mean is reducing it, we want people to be off work less. There are risks with people being off work less, presenteeism being one, where people attend work when they aren’t well enough to be there. They risk making mistakes, infecting others and feeling negative about that experience further reducing motivation and productivity.
The focus should be on reducing the impact of absence first, which of course will be about reducing absence, less people off sick clearly means less impact. But that is too simplistic. Unplanned absence is disruptive, people will be sick so how can you reduce the disruption. As an example, is it possible for them to work from home or come in later? Therefore avoiding a complete absence and still allowing key tasks to be completed. It won’t be possible in all cases or all roles, whatever is being done the focus should be on reducing the impact of absence.
2. Don’t accept a text message
Speak to people! Get people to call in sick and speak to someone, start the conversation, they are much more likely to tell the truth if they have to say it. It’s much easier to type a preplanned statement than it is to say it over the phone.
It’s also much easier to send a text message when you can do it at any time, not have to wait until 9am when your manager has arrived at work. The same goes for leaving voicemails, emails, using slack etc - make sure you speak to people.
If someone sends a text the night before giving you the heads up because they know they will not be in the next day, that’s fine and can be helpful to you making alternative arrangements. But don’t accept this in place of a phone call, still expect a call at an appropriate time the next day.
3. Return to Work Interviews
Then when they return, speak to them again. Return to work interviews, often put off and seen as a tick box exercise but so vital to opening the conversation. Return to work interviews mean someone has to sit in front of you and talk about their absence, this will encourage them to tell the truth. This will encourage them to open up. This is the time to ask if there are any work related issues or anything you can do to support the employee.
The return to work interview is also the time to talk about anything the employee has missed, any concerns that have come up as a result of their absence.
Once again the aim here is about minimising the impact of absence, getting the employee back to speed quickly, predicting and mitigating future absences and being supportive to reduce the chances of future absence.
4. Record and Monitor
You’re going to make the effort of speaking to them both during the absence and on their return don’t waste the effort by not recording what you find. You cannot manage absence without an accurate record.
Recording is vital if you do need to manage excessive absence. If someone is not fit to work, you may be able to dismiss them, it would be a capability dismissal and you will need evidence of their absence. The only way you can demonstrate excessive absence is with data, the return to work interviews will also show what you have to support the employee and why you have got to the point of not being able to accommodate the absence any longer.
Monitoring will ensure you spot quickly when someone’s absence is more than you would expect, this should prevent it reaching excessive or at least mean you are managing it before it becomes excessive.
5. Have a Policy
All the above should be outlined in a policy, clearly explaining entitlements to absence, the procedure for reporting it and the expectations of a return to work interview.
The policy should also clearly state when you require medical certificates and when you will permit alternatives to absence.
6. The Right Culture
Points 1 to 5 will reduce absence but they won’t result in a happier, healthier and more motivated workforce.
Managers who listen and an organisation that recognises and understands the personal nature of ill health, has a focus on wellbeing and removing the stigma about the many things that cause ill health will have benefits far beyond reduced absence.
If people for example are afraid to say they are feeling stressed they will report they have been off with a cold, they may even be telling the truth, the manager just puts it down to a cold and everyone carries on with their day. That story is different if the individual can say, I had a cold but actually I have been feeling run down lately. Not all stress is work related and there is no guarantee the manager can fix this occasion but if we know we’re better placed to be doing something about it or reducing its impact.
7. Make Flexibility Work For You
Managing absence isn’t just about reducing the time off but also reducing the impact of absence. You might wonder what the difference is and for some organisations there will be little difference, other organisations have more flexibility due to the nature of the work.
Humans don’t flick a switch to go from on top of the world one minute to bedridden with sickness the next. Health and illness is a spectrum, with many of us fortunately never experiencing some of the worst types of ill health. Even on a day when we feel well, we have highs and lows. How much sleep we’ve had, whether we’ve eaten or due a meal, the type of food we’ve eaten, hormones, emotions, exercise can all impact how we feel at any minute. Some of us are at our most productive in the morning, others in the evening.
If you are in a position to offer flexibility, focus on outcomes rather than time and allow people to work in the way that suits them, the impact of absence will be reduced.
Where you are able to measure performance based on outcomes rather than presence, you will be in a much better position to trust, monitor and adapt. When you offer the flexibility you can, when you accept that people have days when they are not at their best, far from lowering performance, the outcome will be better motivated, more loyal, more productive people. They will absorb less stress and therefore be less prone to absence. These are the reasons why employees who are based from home have lower sickness absence levels than those who have to go into the office, they are in a better position to work with their bodies and are more likely to be monitored on outcomes.
Whilst it’s great to be able to talk about offering flexibility, I do recognise that this only works in certain environments. Without doubt there are many industries that simply cannot allow this, when you have customer appointments booked, you need people on site to open up and serve customers, on a construction site, where more than one person is needed for a task, care environments - there are plenty of examples I can give where simply turning up to work late or working from home are not options. In these cases the focus needs to be on wellbeing and a work environment that people want to come to work for.
Alongside this, you must recognise absence will happen, people get sick, we cannot get away from this. Have a process in place, know what needs to happen when someone is sick, what are the urgent requirements and how can you solve the issue with minimal impact. Crucially, don’t skip the making them phone in and doing the return to work interview, these are even more vital in your industry.
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Article last updated: 28 February 2023
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