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Managing absence in the workplace – featured article


There are 2.1m people waiting for an operation on the NHS today. Of these, 502,922 people have waited more than six months (Source: Dept of Health website – Feb 2003). Many of these people are working below capacity or will be absent from work. Absence is not only about illness – people are absent from work for many reasons (e.g. stress, being bullied, unmotivated in their role).

In this featured article, Paul Roberts of IHC outlines the steps companies should take to tackle absenteeism effectively.

To effectively tackle absenteeism, it is necessary to establish a best practice solution that enables companies to detect early cases of absenteeism such as stress, injury or known medical procedures, and address the situation early, to avoid the short term absenteeism becoming a long term issue.

Ensure you have a clear policy in place

Your company policy should be clear and simple, so that it is easy to understand, and not open to varying interpretations. The policy should outline details such as when an employee is entitled to be absent from the
workplace; when the employee must inform their line manager that they will be absent; the process and procedures that are in place to address non-attendance; and where employees should go for support during a time of need. The policy should be applied fairly to everybody within the organisation.

Day One Trigger Point

Depending on company practice and culture, the first action to manage absenteeism can be on the first day that an employee is not present in the workplace. The line manager simply needs to check the facts surrounding the absence, understand the issues and address the workflow to ensure business continues. This can be done on the phone or face-to-face.

Some line managers are concerned that their approach to the employee may be seen as harassment. To avoid this, line managers should approach their employee from a position of support and help. Sometimes a reminder to an employee that they can access a certain insurance policy is all that is needed to induce self-help and set someone on the road to recovery.

Companies need to ensure that their line managers are fully supported too, and have the relevant training to ensure they keep within the employment legal framework (e.g. Disability and Discrimination Act, Medical Reports Act, Data Protection Act).

It is important to focus on ‘return to work’ as the primary objective, and line managers should highlight the services available to support the employee such as insurance policies (e.g. private health insurance and group income protection), company doctor or employee assistance programme.

Three week trigger point

This trigger point is designed to catch all cases that start to become long-term. 15 days of absence is nearly twice the national average. Therefore, a system which highlights an employee who is absent for 15 days will ensure that the organisation is supporting the employee, their family, and facilitating their return to work.

Discussions should focus positively on when the employee is likely to return to work (allowing the company to plan workloads). If the case is serious, then occupational health professionals can easily be accessed to give a professional independent medical opinion for managers to make business decisions on issues such as return dates. Creating formal referral links with services such as employee assistance programmes or private health insurance providers can start to integrate health interventions for faster problem resolution.

Monitor trends

Trends often emerge amongst absent employees. Issues such as working practices, times of opening and commercial deadlines can all play a part, rather than illness itself. Around 20% of companies in the UK still do not record reasons for absence. However, the benefits of being able to identify trends in the workplace, and address any issues arising that can help avoid future absentee cases should make capturing this information a priority.

Obtain economies of scale

Integrating health services is key to providing the best and fastest support to the employee, resulting in an early return to work. In many organisations, health services are managed by a range of functions such as compensation and benefits; health and safety; HR. Often, these services can overlap, leading to duplication, as one department won’t necessarily be aware of the services that have been purchased by another.

An efficient solution is to nominate one department to be responsible for all health providers such as employee assistant providers, company doctor, health insurance etc. This way, some economies of scale can be achieved and duplication of services can be avoided.

Involve others

Absence management is a team effort and without support, the champion will lose energy and drive. It is important that others engage in the process as a normal part of good management of your people. This will relieve some of the burden and spread the word that this is a normal part of working at your organisation, not a flash-in-the-pan project that will quickly die away.


Make sure that all employees know what support is available to them, and how to access it. If an organisation has an Intranet, designing one page that holds all the information about health services is an easy way for employees to access information. Most health providers (e.g. employee assistance programme providers) will be happy to come into the organisation and give a presentation about the services they offer, and how to access them.

Top Tips for Absence management

1. Write a clear policy that is short and easy to follow, without interpretation.
2. Set trigger points to ensure absentees are highlighted, supported and reminded about the company policies and health service they can use.
3. Involve others – absence management is a team effort and without support, any champion will lose energy and drive.
4. Record a reason for absence. Use ‘social and domestic’ as a reason coding rather than ‘other’ to record accurate data. Report the results to the management team for discussion and action.
5. Train others and conduct brief focused return to work interviews.

1. Think absence is all about illness and poor health
2. Penalise employees for absence by deducting salaries or bonuses
3. Believe absence costs are not significant to your business
4. Fail to act – if you commit to action in a return to work interview ensure it is carried through
5. Believe all employees are malingering – find out what the issues are and focus on targets and resolution

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