Absence management needs to be taken seriously

Written by
John Ritchie

03 Aug 2016

03 Aug 2016 • by John Ritchie

Absence is an issue that faces companies of all sizes, but few handle it well.

Our research report ‘Sickness absence risk and attitudes in UK SMEs’ found that a third of SMEs do not use a sufficient absence management system, with 22% making handwritten notes, 8% making mental notes and 4% not recording absence at all. Clearly these are not robust and sufficient processes for managing absence, and in the most severe circumstances open businesses to detrimental legal risk.

The people in a business are normally its most important asset and therefore a source of risk. Knowing where – and more importantly how – your people are is essential. Sufficient absence management and recording processes should therefore be one of the first building blocks of any HR strategy.

Larger companies have more resources and can often absorb shocks to productivity caused by absence, but it’s still not uncommon to find inconsistent recording practices in these environments – often resulting from business acquisitions.

Where insufficient processes are used, and particularly in larger companies where people can become numbers, keeping track of and understanding why an employee is repeatedly absent from work can be tough. But it’s not wise to act hastily. Before deciding to follow processes to dismiss a person who is repeatedly absent, as an HR professional you’ll want to have your facts straight.

Having a robust system ensures accurate record keeping and prompts important conversations with those employees so you know why they are sick.  Repeated sickness may be a result of a chronic illness and if your process aren’t up to scratch, choosing to dismiss them may result in a damaging claim for unfair dismissal. If that is an aggravated claim adding disability discrimination on the notice, your executives can expect the settlement to double or treble.

If an employee is just unreliable and you’ve recorded data to prove their absence pattern is not due to an underlying health problem, you can act to terminate virtually risk free.

Keeping the person at the centre

With weak recording practices also comes the risk that you will be unable to care for your colleagues. If there’s a valued employee with a health issue in the workplace, you will want to know about it so you can support them through periods of treatment. It’s also important to show fellow employees that you are prepared to support their colleague – who is often their friend - through a health crisis.

Having a sturdy system in place such as an online management tool, will help you to take steps to support employees during their absence. In the event of both short and long term absence, you’ll be able to use this data to maintain clear, supportive communication. Whether that’s using the facts to make it easier to approach a difficult conversation or keeping in touch while they’re at home unwell or recovering. Ultimately, keeping data helps determine how well your company cares for an employee’s wellbeing in a structured, professional manner, supported by accurate information.

Early intervention is key

Linking absence recording to early intervention services provided by appropriate professionals is a recommended strategy. From accurate information, prompt, well informed action can be made. Spreadsheets alone will not make the link for you, a system is more robust but a call to action still needs to be made. HR professionals should be proactive and confident in approaching an employee to arrange appropriate support in the event of recurring short term or unexpected long term absence. Having an external support service integrated with your absence management system will make this easier.

If an absence looks like it has the potential to become long term, the critical issue is getting the appropriate professional help to support the person and to ensure communication happens. Whether integrated with an insurer’s case management services or another health professional service, the connection needs to be made as soon as possible. Intervening early in a period of absence is essential to address the condition, prevent any further deterioration and encourage employees back to work in the context of a well-considered return to work plan. These plans need to be progressive and slower than you will imagine. If you rush it, you risk a further breakdown in physical or psychological health. This level of care requires clear and defined internal procedures implemented within a well-trained and supported HR team.

From recording, to approaching your employee, communicating clearly and offering appropriate support, absence management should be recognised as a vital aspect of a clear and thorough HR strategy. Implementing robust absence management practices will mitigate productivity losses, safeguard the business and show employees that they are valued in good times and bad.