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Manufacturers Achieve Record Low Short-term Sickness Absence

Good news for manufacturers! According to a recent survey, sickness absence in the sector is at an all-time low with the average employee taking only 4.9 days’ short-term sickness absence per year. It is believed that greater employer engagement in sickness has helped these figures with the provision of health-related benefits and occupational health assessments – all in the year’s gap between the government’s withdrawal of SSP refunding and the introduction of state-funded OHAs.

We all get ill occasionally which can’t be helped, but unmanaged sickness absence can be a real drain on a business, particularly where an employee has specialist skills which will have the effect of hampering productivity during his absence.

Most employees only take time off when they are ill. But there are people who suffer from what we call Chronic Monday-itis and take a day here and a day there on a regular basis. It all stacks up and not only causes the business problems but is also greatly resented by diligent employees who do come to work, even if they all feel a twinge when they get up in the morning (who doesn't from time to time?). The difficulty many employers have is that when an employee calls in sick, how do they know if it’s real or not? They’re not doctors so there’s no way of telling for sure, but there are things you can do to discourage casual absence. Making sure you have robust notification requirements is a good start. If someone is off for a day or two with a minor ailment (and that includes the vast majority of sickness) there’s no reason why the sufferer can’t call in in person. Collecting good quality relevant data at the time is critical to sickness absence management. Reviewing that data, health and attendance at a return to work meeting is invaluable. People who lie about sickness absence often forget the detail of what they say (it’s often along the lines of “the dog ate my homework”) and if you have an accurate record of what they've told you, you can ask about it, though don’t accuse them of lying. Just ask the question, listen in silence (and confine yourself to raising a quizzical eyebrow if you really are flabbergasted by the reply).

If the employee defends himself by attacking you and saying that you’re calling him a liar you can say with some justification that as his employer you are concerned about his attendance, concerned about his health and have a duty to find out about any ill health conditions he may have with a view to helping him so he can attend for work. If there is a pattern of absence, point it out and ask him about it.

Average annual sickness absence for an employee with no underlying health condition is about six or seven days. It’s if an employee exceeds that level that a more structured exploration of absence is needed, though you should always carry out return to work meetings for all sickness absences.

46 per cent of businesses surveyed said they would be willing to fund medical interventions for employees if they received tax relief from the government under the Health and Work Service that comes in this autumn. This may well help both short and long-term sickness absence.

If you can make small adjustments to work practices, encourage healthy habits at work or introduce optional counselling for high-pressure roles, it may add up to a big difference in productivity.

There are plenty of people who will fake sickness, but for many other people it’s a genuine problem. Fortunately, as the manufacturing sector seems to have shown, it is a problem you can take positive action to address.

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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