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New approaches to cutting staff absence

Developing positive workplace practices 
and new ways of working

"..traditional and inflexible work practices require people to be absent from work for longer than they need to be"

Arthur felt far more useful  when they wired in his new modem...+

Measuring the cost of workplace absence to the UK economy is a difficult art. The CBI calculates it at £10.5bn per year. The Industrial Society puts it at £13bn. Though calculations of the cost vary, the point is clear that there is a high rate of absence, and that it is very costly to the UK economy.

In 1999, 187 million working days were lost. This translates as around 8 days per employee, in total 3.4% of working time. But can this be changed, or is it a fact of life that people get sick and will have to miss a certain amount of work?

A closer look at the data indicates that the figure could be lower:

  • organisations with the worst records have twice the absence rates of the best ones - there may be factors relating to the work involved, but it indicates that many firms have scope for improvement
  • men under 40 have half the absence rate of women of the same age
  • public sector employees report sick more often than those in the private sector
  • trade unionists report sick more often than non-union employees.

There is scope to draw some contentious conclusions from these findings - for example, is greater job security in the public sector a reason for not being so motivated to struggle in to work? Whatever the reasons, these differences highlight areas where, at least to some extent, individual's criteria for considering themselves unfit for work vary.

the Industrial Society report Maximising Attendance also highlights a divergence of opinion between what managers think are the top five causes of absence and what employees say themselves:

How employees report absence In managers' own opinion
1. Colds/flu 1. Colds/flu
2. Stomach upset/food poisoning 2. Stress/emotional problems/personal problems
3. Headaches/migraines 3. Monday morning blues/extending the weekend
4. Back problems 4. Low morale/boring job
5. Stress/emotional problems/personal problems 5. Childcare problems/family sickness

If managers are correct as seeing the reason in the left hand column as often being "code" for some of the reasons they list, it pinpoints areas where employers could take positive action to reduce absenteeism.

Tackling absence positively

Leaving aside surveillance, interrogation and other more draconian approaches, which no doubt some employers might favour, there are preventative measures which employers could take. For example

  • family friendly policies, from flexible hours to workplace crèches to help employees cope with childcare problems
  • providing more varied/interesting/responsible work to combat "low morale/boring job" syndrome
  • compressed working week options to cater positively for those who may need longer weekends
  • mentoring, counselling, fitness programmes, on-site massage etc to help people through stress, emotional problems or personal problems, plus careful monitoring of workloads.

The Industrial Society suggests other steps organisations could take:

  • having a clear policy on absence monitoring
  • training managers to manage attendance
  • training employees to recognise and manage signs of stress
  • improving employee motivation through training and development opportunities
  • using return-to-work interviews after illness and informal procedures to keep individuals informed and to resolve problems by consensus.

These approaches tackle absenteeism by seeking to reduce the number of absences.

Redefining absence

An alternative approach is to alter the nature of absences, so that absence from the workplace does not mean that no work is done at all. 

When people are absent - unless for an agreed appointment with the doctor or dentist - it is usually for a whole day at a time. But people who may not feel up to the commute journey and 8 hours of continuous work may nonetheless feel able and willing to put in a few hours of work. This is particularly the case where the reported illness really belongs to the employee's child, rather than the employee.

Looked at this way, it can be said that traditional and inflexible work practices require people to be absent from work for longer than they need to be.

All across the country parents (usually it is mothers) call in sick when they are not, so that they can look after a sick child. They then crawl into work when they really are sick by way of compensating, or if they feel they can't be sick "again" so soon after the last absence. Unhealthy patterns emerge amongst parents: they routinely work when they should be recuperating, and share their diseases in the workplace.

Much simpler, more honest and more productive are work environments where employees feel free to tell their line managers and colleagues that their child is ill, and then work from home. (And it helps to be properly set up for this, with remote access, etc)

A similar process could apply to people who are well enough to work intermittently at home, but for whom a day in the office could be very debilitating. This is especially helpful for people with chronic or intermittent conditions. A work regime which requires nine-to-five seven days a week can be intrinsically disabling for some people with chronic conditions or long term illnesses, or who are recuperating from serious illness or injury. Flexible hours and home based working can allow people in this position to maximise their contribution, and to increase their wage-earning potential.

In the end, the solutions should be about focusing on what people can do, rather than on their non-attendance on the workplace. 

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