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Flexible working could be the solution to rising employee absence – research

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Figures released by The Work Foundation indicate that managers believe that flexible working could stop rising employee absence, by allowing workers the time off to deal with personal emotional and family issues such as stress and childcare, without having to resort to calling in sick.

The survey of 400 personnel specialists comes as the government struggles to gain employer buy-in for new family friendly employment rights, coming into force in April. The new figures reverse the previous downward trend and are the highest since 1996 when The Work Foundation began monitoring absence.

Overall absence rates in 2002 were 4.12% (or nine days per employee per year) – up from 2.9% in 2001. The problem is particularly acute in the public and voluntary sectors – where the absence rate has more that doubled from 2.97% in 2001 to 7.86% in 2002.

The top five reasons given by employees for time off are colds/flu (93%), food poisoning/stomach upsets (77%), headaches/migraines (64%), stress/emotional/personal problems (54%) and back problems (47%).

By contrast, managers believe the most common reasons for absence are cold/flu (59%), stress/emotional/personal problems (58%), Monday morning blues/extending the weekend (39%), sickness of other family member/childcare problems (36%), the concept of taking sick leave entitlement 31%), and low morale/boring job (31%).

Over half of the responding organizations offer flexible working. Two-thirds (66%) of these believe that flexible working hours help to reduce absence, as do flexible annual leave (49%) and occasional homeworking (48%).

Traditionally the groups most at risk of absence are male manual workers and women with caring responsibilities. While the figures suggest that companies are having some success in managing manual worker absence, the reverse is true of female absence, which seemed to increase slightly in 2002.

According to Stephen Bevan, The Work Foundation’s deputy director of research: “Enhanced maternity and paternity rights, including the new right for parents to ask for family friendly working practices – due to take effect in April, should help reduce the absence rate of women employees. Until then, organizations may find that flexible work practices address the ‘ability to attend factor’ and help people manage their responsibilities more effectively.”

The survey also found that the financial impact of absence is calculated in less than half (43%) of organizations surveyed – a decrease of 11% since 1996. The main reason given is that it is too time-consuming (33%). Around a quarter do not have a computerized personnel system (29%) or accurate attendance records (23%).

Employers believe that the most effective methods for maximizing attendance are return to work interviews (77%), motivation (59%), accurate monitoring (54%) and training of line managers (51%). A written absence policy is rated as important by 44% of respondent organizations.

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