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3 ways to tackle sickness absence and save billions

This article is based on the free eBook “Dealing with Chronic Mondayitis”

It is a fact of life that people become ill from time to time and as employers we have a responsibility to deal with absence. Absence can be a serious drain on a business for both large and small organisations, with the direct costs running to billions of pounds a year. Absence places a burden on colleagues and a failure to manage poor attendance can result in poor morale if the issue is not tackled, with a consequent effect on productivity and profitability.

Tackling absence isn’t always straightforward. Absences come in different forms, may be of varying durations and be for a variety of reasons. Employers have to develop a range of proportionate responses. There is no one ‘right’ way of going about it, but any actions you take must always be fair and reasonable. Remember that inappropriate or discriminatory action can lead to expensive legal settlements.

The real key to success to managing absence at work is taking action at an early stage, keeping good records and following correct procedures. Here you can take a look at some basic facts and how to deal with absence effectively. 


Assessing the Cost of Absence

The estimated cost of sickness absence for UK businesses in 2010 was at least £17 billion and 190 million days of absence were ascribed to sickness, with public sector sickness remaining much higher than the private sector.

Employees are demonstrating a marked tendency to take ‘duvet days’ (i.e. days when one isn’t really ill, but can’t be bothered to get up and go to work). Respondents to the surveys collecting the data estimated that some 15% of these days are not genuine.


3 effective ways to tackle sickness absence

1. Don’t recruit a problem

Managing attendance starts at the recruitment stage. Try not to recruit a problem. I’m a firm believer that if an employee had chronic ‘Mondayitis’ in his last job, he’ll go on having chronic ‘Mondayitis’ in this job (leopards don’t change their spots) and that means all the pain and time spent in having to manage him. Minimise your risk by building in some checks at recruitment, for example, using a health screening questionnaire once an offer has been made and testing and cross-checking information gathered during the recruitment process against references.

You should only ask about conditions relevant to the particular job that you’re advertising. For example, you might ask about arm or hand problems if the job requires frequent use of a keyboard. This means that you will have to change the form to meet the requirements of different jobs.

2. Holistic health

One of the most cost-effective ways of managing attendance is to try to prevent employees from being absent by tackling the underlying causes of absence in the first place.

Most people want to do a good job and will attend for work regularly. If they are motivated, interested in their work, feel that they are being fairly and equitably treated and reasonably rewarded, that their company is a good place to work and they have a sense of involvement, then employees are less likely to be absent.

Some absence will be outside management’s control, but levels of absence can be reduced when positive policies are introduced to improve working conditions and increase employees’ motivation to attend work.

You could consider taking all or some of the following steps:

  • Health screening as part of the recruitment process (but note that since the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, you can only insist on pre-recruitment health screening in very limited circumstances).
  • Investigate how to improve physical working conditions.
  • Take ergonomic factors into account when designing workplaces.
  • Ensure that health and safety standards are maintained.
  • Give new starters, especially young people, sufficient training and ensure that they receive particular attention during the initial period of their employment.
  • Wherever possible, design jobs so that they provide job satisfaction; jobs should provide variety, discretion, responsibility, contact with other people, feedback, some challenge and have clear goals.
  • Review and update relevant policies, for example, training, career development and promotion policies, communication procedures and welfare provision to see if they can be improved.
  • Ensure policies on equal opportunities and discrimination are fair and observed.
  • Train managers so they can carry out their role properly and ensure they take an interest in their employees’ health and welfare.
  • Introduce flexible working hours or varied working arrangements, if this would assist employees without conflicting with production or other work demands.
  • Encourage people to take their holidays within the prescribed period.

3. Insured benefits

The cost of some health related insurance benefits provided by some employers, for example, private medical insurance and permanent health insurance, tends to increase in line with the age of employees. With the removal of the default retirement age in October 2011, the cost to employers of providing such benefits would inevitably increase which may have led some employers to withdraw such benefits for all employees. To avoid these issues, the Government introduced an exemption from the principle of equal treatment on the grounds of age where group risk insured benefits are provided on behalf of an employer. The exemption will mean that this type of insured benefit can be withdrawn from employees aged 65 and above (though this age will rise in line with the state pension age).

A failure to consider an employee’s entitlements on termination for long-term sickness could result in an unfair dismissal. To avoid this situation, put in place a proper system for the management of long-term sickness absence to ensure that you take all the necessary steps before dismissal.
There is a lot more to learn about sickness absence and how to handle it. If you are keen to read more about this topic, you might want to download the free eBook Dealing with Chronic Mondayitis – How to Reduce Duvet Days and Increase Attendance… written by Kate Russell.