How can employers measure unscheduled absence effectively?

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 Jul 2010

19 Jul 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Managing unscheduled absence

Unscheduled workplace absence can be unpredictable, difficult to manage and expensive. Severe weather conditions earlier this year resulted in high levels of workplace absence, and a blanket-ban on flights during April meant that 150,000 UK workers were stranded overseas unable to return to work.

The headache for employers was how to manage this absence both in practical terms - covering workload, maintaining customer service, production, patient care etc - and in legal terms i.e do we have to pay staff who are unable to get to work in these circumstances, or can we insist that they take paid or unpaid leave?

How much of a problem is absenteeism?

Controlling sickness absence is a priority on many management agendas, in both the public and private sectors. Unscheduled absence is one of the most serious issues affecting the efficiency of UK business, with on average, 3.7% of annual payroll costs lost on unscheduled absenteeism (unscheduled sickness and any other unplanned time off work).

To put that into perspective, this is around eight days per employee per year - with some industry sectors seeing much higher levels. There are the obvious direct costs of absence, such as overtime costs or temporary cover, but there are many more indirect or hidden costs of absence that need to be considered by organisations including increased management and clerical time, the negative impact on customer service, productivity issues and the negative effect it has on staff morale when their colleagues are absent. The CIPD estimates that the cost of absence is between ??11 and ??13 billion per annum, so its certainly a cost worth measuring, managing and reducing.

How can employers measure absence effectively?

The cost of absence is now so well documented that many organisations continuously task themselves with managing down absence levels, but there are still significant numbers of companies who are guessing at absence levels in their organisations and paying little attention to accurately measuring the situation. Despite having a gut feel about overall absence, they often have no evidence to back this up.

In its simplest form, absence management can be a pen and paper system where a manager notes down every period of absence on an employee record card. Simple, but consider a manufacturer with 500 employees, with varying skills, working 24/7 across multiple shifts and multiple locations. Larger employers need something more automated in order to effectively measure absence in larger companies. And larger companies tend to suffer significantly higher absence than smaller ones, where the average absence rises dramatically above 350 employees.

Pen and paper, or spreadsheet-based systems are too cumbersome, time consuming and inaccurate. They rely on human data-capture which can be unreliable. Increasingly, organisations capture employees working hours and absence via real-time time and attendance systems, which automate the measurement of absence levels and trends and push relevant information to line managers and HR.

Using workforce management systems

Measuring and monitoring absence with a workforce management system can be done retrospectively in order to benchmark and create company statistics. Alternatively, it can be done in real-time by organisations that need to know who has arrived to start a shift, where there are gaps due to absence, and where there might be additional employees in the workplace to provide cover. So, for many companies, monitoring absence levels isnt something you do twice a year for management reports. Its something to be done on a daily basis to ensure that staff are always available for the efficient running of a business and to ensure that potential absence problems are spotted early.

Recording absence with a workforce management system starts with an employee indicating their presence for work. This can be done in a variety of ways but most importantly has to be accomplished in real-time. And if they dont arrive for work, the system records them as absent. Managers will immediately be notified of an absence, the system will offer replacements to ensure efficiency is not lost and then employers can drill down into stored data in the workforce management system to extract absence information in a number of ways. For example, total absence days for the entire company, site by site, department by department or down to an individual; all incidents of Monday or Friday absence; or absence levels around sporting events such as the World Cup.

Many organisations now understand that by scrutinising absence data its easier to see patterns of behaviour that can give cause for concern about an employee - concerns that can be addressed before a problem becomes serious. 

Good health means good business: sickness absence

In an attempt to identify the factors that stand in the way of good health, in 2008 Dame Carol Black reviewed the health of Britains working-age population and her findings and recommendations were outlined in the report, Working for a Healthier Tomorrow. The introduction of the Fit Note on 6th April 2010 was a direct result of the report findings and Challenges the notion that illness is incompatible with being at work and that we should only be at work if we are 100% fit.

Emerging evidence now suggests that for many people, early intervention will help to prevent short-term sickness absence from progressing to long-term sickness absence and ultimately worklessness.

The workplace therefore has a key role to play in identifying early indicators that an employee might be unwell and a key shift in attitudes is required to ensure that employers and employees recognise the key role the workplace can play in promoting well-being.

Monitoring absence levels in real-time

We can all look for ways in which we can identify potential health issues - we just need the tools to help us, particularly if we work in large organisations. Workforce management systems are widely-used by organisations to record working time and attendance. Many of these organisations are using the systems to good effect to pro-actively measure absence levels and absence patterns for individual employees. And line managers, HR and payroll professionals can be automatically alerted to unusual absence patterns which might give rise for concern about an employees well-being, particularly if the employee has had a previously good attendance record.

The key to spotting a potential problem, however, is the timeliness of the information received. Relying on paper-based systems and spreadsheets means relying on out-of-date information, whereas real-time information taken from a workforce management system will alert a manager within seconds of an employee failing to turn up for work, allowing the line manager to nip the problem in the bud. Similarly, a workforce management system will tell a manager immediately a sick employee returns to work, ensuring that return-to-work interviews are done quickly.

Will the Fit Note help reduce absence?

Its hoped that the Fit Note will have a positive effect on absence levels, encouraging sick employees to return to work with some support from their employer. In theory, we should encourage attempts to keep employees working, but will it work in practice? 

There have been several recent surveys that investigated employers attitudes to the Fit Note and most have concluded that employers are sceptical about the effect the Fit Note will have on reducing absence levels. One survey from Kronos indicates that only 22% of employers think that the Fit Note will reduce absence and 38% of respondents suggested that it will create more problems than it will solve.

Whats the future for absenteeism?

Many organisations are taking absence management seriously. Somerfield introduced more flexible working and real-time attendance monitoring and reduced absence by 40%. There are significant savings to be made by monitoring and measuring absence levels in real-time.

But we must also keep an eye on the changing workforce in the UK. A few months ago, the number of people over the age of 65 exceeded those under 16 for the first time. As the country grows older and the demand grows for people to work beyond their pensionable age, well have a workforce that will demand more flexibility and may take more time off due to ill health. We all need to plan now for a very different workforce and have the systems and processes in place to allow for flexibility.

Tips for reducing absence in the workplace

  • Capture absence data in real-time - managers can deal with issues immediately
  • Have a clear absence policy - the first step in addressing any problems
  • Return-to-work interviews - very effective in reducing absence levels
  • Offer flexible working - shown to reduce absence levels
  • Offer option to purchase leave - reduces unscheduled absence when leave runs out
  • Enforce the absence policy - be consistent with all employees
  • Provide incentives for good attendance - used very effectively in many organisations
  • Be realistic - unplanned absence often cant be helped - consider offering duvet days
  • Make controlling absence a business priority - theres no excuse not to be in control of absence.