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Colborn’s Corner: Does absence really make the heart grow fonder?

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Quentin Colborn
Quentin Colborn takes a look at absence following latest CBI findings which suggest that it has fallen to its lowest level for 20 years.


The recent CBI statistics suggest that the total number of sick days fell in 2005 by four million days to ‘just’ 164 million. It’s got to be good news for UK plc, but how have we done it? For that matter what have we really done?

Without wishing to pour cold water on the CBI’s figures, how confident are we that the figures have improved that much? Firstly we have to remember the figures are based on sampling and those who have done CIPD statistics (assuming it’s still part of the syllabus!) will recall there are degrees of confidence in predictions – and they are not always correct! Secondly, and not wishing to decry the efforts of my colleagues, how much absence data is correct?

I appreciate that many organisations will have very well disciplined absence reporting systems but how many? I’ve seen many an organisation where no records are kept of absence especially within the management teams. Could it be that in some places when asked for absence data the finger goes up into the wind and an ‘acceptable’ answer is forthcoming? I hope not, but you never know.

What of the difference between the public and private sectors? The figures suggest that absence is 30% higher in the public sector, but why is this? One suggestion from some trade unionist is that private sector employers are more likely to dismiss employees for long-term sickness than in the public sector. True? Never having worked in the public sector I cannot say, but those of you who have, what do you think?

Is there a correlation between levels of sickness and the amount of sick pay provided? Possibly, there are the anecdotal stories of people who are keen to use up their sickness ‘entitlement’ before it runs out. This is possibly true, but surely not representative of people as a whole. And naturally enough for many the prospect of not being paid is a pretty good incentive to go to work. The downside of course being many may not be fit for work.

So what has HR done in all this. I think those who have been proactive and got return to work interviews well into the work culture are to be congratulated. To my mind this places sickness absence as another aspect of performance management – to be addressed by line management. Long gone are (or should) the days when personnel met those who came back from sickness or even did the sickness visiting. Of course there is a role for visiting employees who are genuinely at home and ill, but why these days does anyone from HR do it? Certainly if I were ill there are certain HR people who would be the last I would like to see!

According to the CBI about 13% of absences are fake. True or false? I have a sneaking feeling that those figures may be over egging the subject. But it’s all a question of statistics, of one day absences which are fairly disruptive to working life, I suspect that many more than 13% are faked. In some environments throwing the proverbial ‘sickie’ is fairly commonplace and will become more so with the World Cup coming up. But in reality how many people who are off for five days are really faking it? And in any event is sickness absence a motivational issue for many rather than anything else?

So what’s your experience of sickness in the workplace? Are the numbers dropping, and if so why? What innovative approaches have you seen to reducing absenteeism in your organisation? And what’s the perception regarding the public sector. Let’s have you views on this!

Quentin Colborn is an independent consultant who helps organisations promote best practice in addressing people issues. To contact him T: 01376 571360 or e-mail him at [email protected]

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

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