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How to manage sickness absence in a downturn


Sickness absence in a downturnPaul Avis highlights the importance of effective absence management during a downturn to ensure an expedient resolution and to protect the employer from litigation.

Staff absence seriously affects the workplace as not only does it cost businesses £666 per year, per employee (CIPD Absence Management Survey 2009), it also puts pressure on those colleagues still at their desks. They are the ones who have to pick up the absentee’s workload – which can trigger low morale, increase stress and reduce productivity. This is especially relevant in the current economic climate when those still employed are already working flat out.

In more buoyant times the obvious solution for overworked employees was to look elsewhere for work, but today even if they are unhappy and desperate to change jobs, they may not feel able to due to the volatile economy, soaring rates of redundancies and lack of jobs available. This could serve to increase employee stress levels even more as they feel trapped in the economic downturn – resulting in absence leave taken to try and cope with the pressure.

“In more buoyant times the obvious solution for overworked employees was to look elsewhere for work.”

To avoid becoming locked in this downward spiral, employers should be thinking about the reasons for staff absence and how the downturn may be affecting this. There is no generic response to the downturn and staff will be reacting differently to the current climate. For example, some will decide to still attend work even when they are unwell for fear of losing their job to others, whilst they are home recuperating. It is vital that employers reiterate the importance of taking time off to recover and show support to those who go off genuinely sick.

Recent research from Ceridian of over a 1,000 UK employees shows that downturns encourages a culture of ‘presenteeism’; as many as one in three agree that they need to be regularly seen in the office in order to keep their jobs. This is a serious issue as it could manifest as persistent short-term absence if people are reluctant to take the necessary time off to recuperate from illnesses.

One of the most concerning statistics revealed in the Trapped in a downturn report shows that one in 10 would tolerate unacceptable behaviour from their managers in order to remain employed. It’s important to remain vigilant to behavioural changes in the workplace to ensure staff welfare is maintained. Absence patterns could indicate instances of bullying and harassment, so effective monitoring and intervention is required.

In worst-case scenarios, employers could end up being sued by the employee – who may view a large compensation claim as a quick win to protect themselves during uncertain times. In such situations employers have to ask all involved the following questions: What more could we have done for this employee? Have we enforced our absence policy? Have we used our services and benefits effectively and documented the facts? So measuring and recording the reasons for absence are vital and this can be achieved by introducing an audit trail.

Before undertaking an audit the absence policy in place must be robust and employees should have signed explicit consents to comply with data protection law and also agree to abide by the policy itself.


A good starting point for an audit trail is when an employee notifies the employer of an absence for the first time. Yet, many employers miss the opportunity and fail to capture what is said. A simple telephone call could have provided crucial insight into understanding that some employees are not faring well in the downturn.

The notification will also capture those who are persistent short-term absentees. If the organisation has an absence policy with triggers, comparisons can be made between what was said on the call with a ‘return-to-work’ meeting.

Returning to work

“Employee absence can prove to be costly and spiral out of control if left unchecked.”

When an employee comes back to work a formal ‘return-to-work meeting/interview’ should be carried out, and this should never be a ‘corridor chat’. The employee should feel at ease and be able to discuss difficult personal issues.

This meeting should be backed by a form that both line manager and employee sign and a single, self-certification form for all absences, including half days.

Persistent short-term absence

Employee absence can prove to be costly and spiral out of control if left unchecked. Monitoring short-term absence is something that must be addressed as soon as it has been recognised, and is something that you can’t afford to ignore – recession or no recession.

Many employers run scared of dealing with employees who can exhibit either ‘entitlement mentality’, those that consciously bolster their holiday by taking some of their legally entitled sick days, or ‘absence indifference’, those that do not have a moral issue of taking absence leave even if they are not sick. But where possible, it is important that these individuals understand the impact of their actions when unnecessarily taking time off work and the ramifications it has for their fellow colleagues.

How best practice works

Whilst there are some excellent line managers, there are many who run shy of dealing with absence and this is often because they are unsupported at a policy, training and a systems level.

In effect what every employer needs is an integrated sickness, absence, disability and healthcare management system. This would incorporate all of the forms needed to run the absence policy, engage services suppliers – at the correct stages in the absence – and finally ensure that PMI, EAPs, income protection, and other benefits, all work together to resolve the absence. Such systems do exist and guarantee an audit trail, which in a litigious situation almost guarantees the employer success with consequent reductions in liability insurances.

The problem is that many employers quite simply are happy to avoid addressing the issue, do not have the finances to ‘invest to save’, do not see absence as a problem and are happy to leave employees ‘on the books’. With such systems available, there is no excuse to run any absence on a less than ‘best practice’ basis.

Paul Avis is lifeworks corporate development manager at Ceridian.

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