Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
04 Apr 2010

Practical solution to absence management?

04 Apr 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Sickness absence policy preparation

Winter tends to carry higher absence rates than the rest of the year because of seasonal illnesses like colds and flu, but this year the snow that began as a picturesque delight for many quickly became a nuisance and then moved on to financially damaging.

Absenteeism due to the dangerous driving conditions and cancelled public transport reached almost 14%, and some estimates put the cost to the British economy at ??0.5bn a day.

Schools closed up and down the country, forcing some parents who might have made it into work to stay home and look after the kids. Some small companies simply shut up shop for the duration of the snow, and larger companies had to close entire departments down. It wasnt even just a question of making it into work; once there, companies found it hard to keep pavements and car parks safe enough for employees to use. Everybody was affected.

And among the confusion, questions were being asked. Am I going to get my pay docked if I cant make it into work? Does this count as holiday leave? The legal situation is actually very clear, but ethically more than a little slushy. Employers are legally entitled to ask staff to take unpaid leave or annual leave in these instances; whether its really fair on staff who cant make it in, as opposed to wont try to make it in, is another matter. There are morale issues to consider.

Thats why early policy preparation is a vital part of communication. Whichever way an employer goes with this, with clear and well communicated direction at least staff know what to expect. Thats where technology comes in: an absence management tool is a vital part of keeping staff informed.

Pulling a sickie

Its not just the winter white stuff that highlights the issue of absenteeism; the winter blues play their part too. More days in January are lost than in any other month of the year; while the first Monday in February has earnt the unofficial title of National Sickie Day. Most employers would probably rather a genuinely unwell staff member spends a day or two in bed making a speedy recovery than being the brave martyr and spreading their sickness around dozens of other employees; but either way its food for thought.

Human resources consultancy Mercer published a survey earlier this year which revealed that Mondays account for 35% of all sick leave; it surely cant be a complete coincidence that return-to-work day is the day on which people are most likely to feel ill. Whats clear is that poor morale, poor management and poor employee engagement contribute significantly to absenteeism. There are a huge number of ways in which employers should be looking to engage staff, to show that theyre not just numbers, but accountability, good communication and sharing of information is a fundamental starting point. And its one where HR-tools come into play. This is where an Absence Management tool can act as a simple first step in employee engagement, breaking down the them-and-us mindset.

6 April: new fit note

We can also hope that the new fit note will go some way towards encouraging closer and more frequent communications between employer and employee. From 6 April 2010 sick notes will be a thing of the past, and instead computer-generated fit notes will allow doctors to advise whether a patient is fit for some work, or fit for none at all. Depending on the nature of the illness or injury, doctors recommendations might include reduced hours or amended duties for those patients well enough to return to work. Its still down to the employer to decide whether it can accommodate those recommendations, or whether the patient is best left at home until fully recovered. This should see employers encouraged to open discussions on a one-to-one basis with employees.

It also acknowledges formally the variation in responsibilities from job to job and person to person. The reality of working life is that establishing variable working conditions can be hard to track; specialist software is an invaluable tool in ensuring clarity for all parties concerned. Figures such as ??240-250m savings over 10 years have been punted about for the new fit note system and with 2.6m people in the UK on incapacity benefit and over 170 million working days lost per year, its easy to see why.

What we can be sure of, though, is a period of acclimatisation. GPs are taking on a different responsibility, and line managers and human resources personnel are going to have to think more flexibly about returning people to work. The aim of reducing long-term sickness cycles is laudable, but the process has got to be closely managed.

Turning green when youre away

2009 also threw up two European Court of Justice rulings that employers and employees alike should be aware of: Pereda v Madrid Movilidad and Stringer v HM Revenue and Customs. Without getting into the awkward details, one case concerned the right to accrue holiday leave when a staff member is off long-term sick, while the other addressed the question mark over workers rights to reschedule holiday leave if they fall sick while on vacation. Both rulings went in favour of the employee.

To follow these landmark cases, a British employment tribunal, Shah v First West Yorkshire, upheld an employees claim that he should be allowed to carry annual leave into the following year since a broken ankle coincided with his prebooked holiday leave.

This contradicts the UK Working Time Regulations, which state that its unlawful to carry more than eight days into the following working year. The case may not be legally binding, but it sets an important precedent, and its one that employers should look to address now. Once again, clear communication, early policy provision and access to those policies are vital to maintaining employer-staff relations, boosting morale and reducing the risk of conflict and absenteeism.

Absence management tool - Bradleys case study

Ive made a few references to technology being a critical tool through which companies can manage their staff and absence policies more effectively. Bradleys, an estate agents based in the south-west, recently introduced the MyWebWorkplace.net Absence Management tool for that purpose. The company has 35 offices and around 190 staff; what complicates things when tracking absence, whether through booked leave or sickness, is that the company has a large portion of part-time staff and 49 different work patterns. Those are known only to line managers and one person in HR.

Staff would request leave by email to the central HR department, which would record it on a local bespoke database. Employees had no access to this, so duplicate requests would sometimes be submitted, and sometimes recorded. Leave entitlement was calculated manually, and tracked by one extremely busy HR person.

Leave rules were set by area managers, and enforced by HR, but the reality of a manual system, albeit one backed by a central database, was that a review of existing leave requests had to take place whenever a new leave request came in, just to make sure no rules were being broken. Those rules include the commonplace: a maximum number of staff at any office absent at the same time and restricted leave for managers on particular dates, as well as the usual variations between employees.

Automating sickness absence

With hours lost across the business and not a little frustration from managing a bloated process, Bradleys turned to MyWebWorkplace for a cost-effective means of tracking entitlement and speeding communication. Absence management gave the directors, HR department, line managers, and individual staff members 24/7 access to holiday and sickness entitlement; allowing strategic planning for department leave and employee holiday booking. The software follows the traditional process of sickness notification and holiday request forms but with none of the delays, misplaced paperwork or communications breakdowns.

The entire process is automated, calculating absence by hours or days as appropriate, and ensuring that all members of the approval process have instant access to the latest information. So an employee can see at a glance how much holiday he or she has available, and how much sick leave has been taken; a line manager can tell immediately from shared calendars which members of the department have used up their holiday entitlement, and the HR department can track trends across the entire company. The result for Bradleys is a faster, more efficient and more reliable approval process, and more time for staff, managers and HR personnel to get on with the work that really matters.

MyWebWorkplace's absence management module

Already leave requests are arriving outside of working hours, employee guidelines and policies are hosted for access at any time of day, and confusion is a thing of the past. Come December 2010, Bradleys will even be using absence management to communicate their winter absence policy to every staff members attention with a message that appears on log-in to the system.

Alison Wright, human resources manager at Bradleys Group, delivered her verdict: "Looking after around 200 people, spread across the South West can be a time-consuming task. MyWebWorkplace's Absence Management module has freed up a lot of my time simply by allowing the staff to manage their time off in accordance with pre-ordained rules.  I can see who is off at any one time and the system prevents too many people being off at the same time. 

"In essence it has removed the human error element. It has also helped me communicate our policies extremely effectively between all offices and departments, and the feedback from our teams has been extremely positive. The initial set-up was daunting but the support was always there and in the long run the time saved will far outweigh the time invested."

Software tools

Software tools are part of an important shift in staff communications, and play a critical part in managing company relations. By using technology to aid employee engagement HR departments can avoid another winter of discontent.