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Managing Sickness Absence; Prevention Is Better Than Cure

Maybe it’s the imminent onset of autumn without having had much of a summer, maybe it’s the dramatic changes in weather and temperature recently, but everyone I’ve come across recently has a bug or the sniffles. Not much fun.

Sickness is inevitability and no matter how motivated and diligent the employee, he or she will get sick sometimes. Employers accept that; but the type of absence that creates most difficulty and disruption in the workplace is persistent short term absence where there is no underlying medical condition.

We call chronic Mondayitus and the UK is one of the worst offenders in Europe. Unchecked Mondayitis causes employers a great deal of stress; eats away at both time and money and puts more pressure on those employees left behind to cover absence. Over 140 million days are lost each year in the UK due to sickness absence.

Tackling persistent short term absence starts with recruitment. Don’t recruit a problem. If an employee suffered from Mondayitus in his last job, it is likely that he will do so again. So implement screening procedures during selection to avoid the employment of such people.

Such checks could involve testing and cross-checking information gathered in the recruitment stage to references. Often employers will use a health questionnaire, but note this can only be done once an offer of employment has been made. Thereafter create a healthy workplace and take steps to encourage employees to look after their own health; prevention is better than cure!

Although some absence will be outside a manager’s control, businesses that adopt positive policies to health can increase an employee’s motivation to attend work. Some strategies could involve:

  • offering fruit and other healthy options at staff meetings;
  • initiatives to promote a healthier workforce; for example, encouraging staff to leave their desk at lunch time;
  • drinking water facilities;
  • making confidential counselling services available for employees; and
  • encouraging staff to take their holidays.

There tend to be higher absence levels in larger organisations, but this does not mean that they are not ways to manage absence from a general perspective.

An example of how successful these policies can be when implemented correctly can be seen in the Brakes Group. With over 10,000 staff, it is a leading European supplier to the catering industry.

Brakes uses a number of tools to encourage healthy employees, safe and healthy working and this tend to drive down sickness absence. Several years ago it introduced a new absence recording and reporting tool that is now available for all employees and has seen a steady improvement in the levels of absence.

In 2011 the company launched a wellbeing programme aimed at encouraging employees to lead fit and healthy lives. The programme provides support and information on healthy eating and healthy option meals are available at worksites. The company also sponsors keep fit programmes, offering employees the opportunity to benefit from discounted gym membership.

They offer the Cycle to Work scheme, contributing to the purchase price of a bicycle to get to work and are sponsors of the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. Many organisations use trigger points: this is the point at which the employer’s concern is officially triggered and suggests that an employee’s attendance merits a long hard look at the reasons for absence, together with a plan to help the employee meet the required attendance levels. There are a number of different trigger point mechanisms - some companies use a certain number of periods of absence within a timescale for this, others use the Bradford Factor.

Commonly, employers use a mixture, for example, three episodes of absence in a 12 month period or a Bradford score of 125 whichever comes first. A trigger point meeting is usually informal. The aim is to encourage specific improvement, and attendance targets are often set at this point setting out agreed targets. If the target is not met then matters will be escalated and disciplinary action may follow.

Note that just because an employee with poor attendance performs well while at work, it is not appropriate to avoid disciplining him on that basis. Some employees survive for years because the manager considers he’s great when he’s there. And so he might be, but we want him to come to work a reasonable number of times! Failing to apply a consistent approach sends out the wrong message to other employees, but no business can operate when staff is spending too much time away from work.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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