Absence management in the face of leaner teams & larger workloads

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 Jul 2010

19 Jul 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Supporting employees to prevent sickness absence

While the current climate is likely to have a negative impact on the availability of incentives and additional rewards, organisations could consider some of the less tangible incentives for employees. Consider whether there's an opportunity to offer more flexible working, including working from home. These options are often greatly appreciated by employees and help them to enhance their own work-life balance.

Focusing on the wellbeing of employees is increasingly moving up the agenda in organisations, and can have a positive impact on absence as well as employee satisfaction and engagement.

A variety of interventions can be used and in tough financial times; organisations should consider the short and longer term Benefits of introducing some of the little or no cost options. Examples might include: access to free advisory sources; promoting ways that employees can take responsibility for their own wellbeing; negotiating discounts for staff with fitness and wellbeing service providers.

Ensuring manageable workloads

Where employees job roles are being extended, it's important to be realistic about the variety and number of additional responsibilities to ensure workloads are manageable.

Failure to do this may impact on employee attendance if they are overloaded or not provided with sufficient training and support in their revised role. Benefits can also be gained from involving employees when deciding how job roles may change and exploring their suggestions for smarter working.

Keeping communication channels open with absentees

When dealing with long-term absentees, it's important to act sensitively especially where the absence is due to stress, depression or other related problems. Maintaining contact is essential and may aid the employee in returning to work upon their recovery; methods and frequency of communication should be agreed by both parties so that the employee feels comfortable.

The longer an employee has been absent, the more difficult it is for them to return, particularly if they have had no contact from their colleagues. Therefore, it's useful to discuss with the absentee how they might like to manage social contact with their colleagues and which details can be shared. Keeping absentees up-to-date with changes in the workplace can also be useful (unless their reason for absence is work-related).

Seek advice from medical professionals

For long-term absences, it's essential that the organisation seeks appropriate medical advice about the employee, usually through the Occupational Health department. Where the organisation doesn't have an internal department, it's possible to engage these services from external providers on a case-by-case basis.

To maximise the usefulness of the feedback, HR professionals should ask specific questions about how they can support the employees and identify any possible adjustments for the employee when they return. The usefulness and relevance of the feedback can also be increased by ensuring that the health professional has an accurate view of what the employees role entails.

In some instances, it may be useful to consider whether the organisation could pay to provide access to specialist medical facilities. For example, while private medical treatment may be expensive the cost-benefit may be persuasive (i.e. if NHS waiting list is long and would provide a significant saving in time away from the workplace).

Ensure accurate records are maintained

Record keeping remains an important part of managing long-term absences; this includes ensuring that absence dates, receiving sick notes and calculations for sick pay are accurately noted.

Failure to do this may lead to problems in the future. It's also advisable to write a brief summary of any communications with the absentee so that records are complete and action points can be confirmed.

The return-to-work process

Returning to work after a long spell of absence can be an anxious time for employees, so it's important to have a two-way communication process between employee and manager to minimise uncertainty. The actual return-to-work should be carefully considered so that a suitable structure can be put in place; wherever possible this should be completed in conjunction with an health professional who can provide specific advice.

Return-to-work interviews (and any other actions prescribed in organisations absence policies) should be carried out consistently so that any recurring problems can be dealt with immediately. It's important that line managers continue to support their employees and have open channels of communication so that any potential issues can be resolved at the earliest opportunity.

Normally, a phased return-to-work is a useful step in allowing the employee to settle back into their role. This can be organised in different ways, such as working part-days or a limited number of days per week. When setting up such arrangements, managers should be conscious of ensuring that they dont try to get the employees to complete full-time tasks within part-time hours.

Regularly review the employee's progress

After a long period of absence, it's likely that changes might have been made in the organisation, and it's important to discuss these changes to the returning employee, particularly where they impact directly upon them. A written summary would also be useful as they are likely to be faced with a wealth of information upon their return. Where someone has covered the employees role in their absence, a detailed handover will be useful for all parties.

Line managers should be encouraged to have regular discussions with returning employees to ensure that there have not been any issues and to assess the success of their return to work, any potential medical issues should be reported to HR with the employees consent. Depending on the nature of the employees illness or injury, the organisation should be supportive in allowing time off to attend medical appointments.