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Joe Vallender

Sift Media

Production Manager

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How to: Take control of absence


The issue
If you have a job, you will be absent at some point, whether through illness or issues at home. This type of infrequent and genuine absence should not usually be a problem. When, however, absence becomes part of the corporate culture, or develops into habitual long-term sickness absence, it can have a profound impact on productivity, morale and competitiveness.

Current trends
According to the Office of National Statistics, sickness absence has remained fairly constant over the past 20 years or so. There were almost 2.2 million days lost to sickness in autumn 2001, which equated to 3.4% of workers absent for at least one day.

Long-term sickness in particular takes a high toll. It represents only 5% of absence cases, but accounts for 33% of sick days and costs UK business over £3.8 billion a year (CBI, 2004).

Individual absence cases should be handled sensitively and with discretion while abiding by legislation regulations such as disability laws. While organisations can tailor their particular solutions to absence a common framework approach may help:

The first step is to adopt a positive organisational context. If you work in a company where employees feel good about coming to work, are engaged and committed the probable result is lower absence levels.

The second step is to have a clear absence policy in place. Ensure this is effectively communicated and understood by all. Include it within the staff handbook and on the intranet, train managers on the policy and ways to cascade it down to staff.

Thirdly, monitor absence levels, and make sure people know that you do this by involving measurement in staff reviews and appraisals. One of the most powerful tools in managing absence is to demonstrate to employees that days off are taken seriously. Monitoring enables you to spot trends and find solutions.

And according to the Institute for Employment Studies, HR professionals should focus on the following:

Supporting attendance:

  • Promote good health: This could be through raising awareness of health issues, stress management or healthy living days, or by creating a healthy work environment. Not only will this help reduce absence, but it also contributes positively to the ‘employer brand’.
  • Offer flexible working: This can be a key factor in reducing absence as flexible start and finish times, job-sharing or term-time contracts help employees to better manage their work/life balance.
  • Give rewards: Financial or other rewards motivate most people, apart from chronic absentees, but they can encourage those who are ill to come back to work too soon. Alternatively good attendance can be recognised by senior management through personal letters or staff magazines.

Reducing absence

  • Give ‘return to work’ interviews: These give the chance to check an employee is recovered, review absence records and discuss any underlying contributing issues.
  • Identify trigger points: One of the most effective ways to reduce absence is to decide on a level of absence which is acceptable in the company, after which an employee review takes place.
  • Screen new recruits for absence: Viewing former attendance records can be useful when recruiting for a new job and has been shown to be effective in reducing overall absence.

Further information:
* For information on best practice, see Current Thinking on Attendance Management, a Short Guide for HR Professionals (a guide commissioned by the National Audit Office).
* To see ideas on creating a positive work environment and promoting good health, go to
*Review HRZone’s expert guidance on how to quash absence by Nicholas Snowden, Senior Solicitor at Clarkslegal LLP and Peter Duckitt, HR Consultant, at
* Still looking for further help? Post a question to HRZone’s Any Answers and connect your latest absence questions with expert advice.

Neil Shah is Managing Director of Praesto Training & Development Ltd and founder of the Stress Management Society.

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Joe Vallender

Production Manager

Read more from Joe Vallender

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