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Chris Berry

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Managing absence: The critical role of technology


As the full scale of the absence problem becomes apparent in the UK, more and more organisations are looking to technology to help them tackle it cost-effectively, says Chris Berry.

What happens when your employees are sick? Are they expected to call their line manager who should then record and monitor the absence? Do they call the office and leave a message with a colleague, which eventually gets forwarded to their line manager (if the colleague remembers) and perhaps even onto HR (if the line manager remembers)? Even with a well-documented process, can you be sure it is really followed?

Or does the employee or line manager make one call that is logged electronically, routes details to a pre-agreed list of managers, notifies operations of the need to provide cover, maintains near real-time statistics around the costs of absence and kicks off a series of workflows that alert HR to do everything from carrying out a return-to-work interview to checking the health insurance implications?

The difference in these two approaches is the difference between monitoring absence and effectively managing it. One relies on people getting things right – the other relies on a sophisticated but cost-effective set of technologies that automatically ensures your procedures are followed. Not only is the automated approach more efficient, it also ensures HR has the up-to-date information it needs to intervene in individual absence cases, whether that means disciplining an employee who abuses the system or stepping in to assist someone struck down by long-term illness.

Invest in software

It’s now recognised that the cost of absence represents a huge burden both on the taxpayer (for public sector absence) and commercial businesses. Just last month, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) issued its 2009 Absence Management Survey showing that employees take an average of 7.4 days off per year (9.7 days in the public sector) at a cost of £692 per employee per year. Put another way, this means that on average a 500-employee company loses £346,000 per year. Viewed from that perspective, a modest investment in software or services to help reduce absence should very quickly pay for itself.

In addition to the direct costs, absence causes a number of problems ranging from day-to-day operational issues to long-term morale problems. Losing a key member of a team can hit every part of your organisation, from sales to logistics, impacting both productivity and, in severe cases, profitability. Then there is the human cost. Organisations have both a moral responsibility and a vested interest in helping mitigate the impact of long-term absence on individual employees – and they also have a business imperative to reduce the impact on other employees, many of whom are expected to increase their workloads to cover for a sick colleague.
Software systems help to tackle these problems in several different ways. Firstly, they ensure that HR has the information it needs at its fingertips to intervene in individual absence cases. Part of the problem with conventional absence management procedures is that they rely on people remembering to input data into systems – which they’re prone to forget or put off when other issues take priority. In fact, many absence ‘systems’ are really just a haphazard mix of paper, spreadsheets and emails, and inherently inefficient.

Accuracy is vital

By contrast, if you use an automated system that stores data in one place (such as your HR management system) everyone involved in absence management can get the information they need. Having accurate absence records is critically important if you need to take disciplinary action, and with a central pool of data, you can also start to analyse longer-term absence trends. You might find, for example, that one department has a higher rate of absence than comparable departments – by digging a little deeper, you could uncover a problem with a line manager that’s affecting team morale.

Secondly, automated systems can electronically manage the workflows associated with managing absence. This means, for example, that HR can be alerted at key points during an employee’s sickness absence, either about their imminent return to work or about milestones during an extended absence.   

Most HR management systems contain basic tools to help you record absence in your central HR database, which is a great place to start – it’s far better to have the information in one place than scattered across your organisation. These modules can be supplemented by specialist absence systems that help you gather initial absence information (by voice recording, for example), send data to people who need to know (perhaps by email or SMS) and then automate the workflows required to manage the associated procedures.

This kind of software can either be implemented as a conventional in-house software system, or in some cases will be provided as a hosted service, where the supplier runs the software for you and you access it over the internet. As long as the data feeds smoothly from the outsourced service into your HRMS, taking a hosted approach has a number of advantages. It’s usually quicker to implement than an in-house system, and the supplier will take on responsibility for all the hassle of managing and upgrading the software. In addition, hosted services are often paid for with a regular usage fee rather than an upfront software licence, which spreads the financial outlay and can be a real benefit in today’s economy.

Whichever approach you take with your software, the goal will be the same. Absence costs your organisation dearly in many different ways: automating the way you manage it is a big first step in reducing the problem.

Chris Berry is managing director of Computers in Personnel, a provider of software and services for people and data management


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