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Annie Hayes

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Opinion: Remedying short-term absence

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First Aid Kit
Persistent short-term absences are frustrating for most, if not all employers but with the right approach this does not actually have to be a burden; this article explains some of the ways in which organisations can combat the issue.


The first challenge is absence notification and having done many line management and employee focus groups, it is evident that managers themselves are the last people that an organisation should want to take the initial call. With employees texting, phoning a friend, ringing the gatehouse, leaving messages on managers’ voice mail etc it is possible that 50% plus of all notifications do not reach the manager personally.

If the employees does report in correctly and talk to their manager will they remember to put the information onto the paper or HR recording system (how often are they sat at the desk to take the call?), catch the presenting issues and work relatedness of the absence and what will happen if they themselves are the cause of the absence for example inter-personal conflict with the employee, work based stress etc?

It is also extremely doubtful if they will remember to optimise the private medical and employee assistance programme benefits, when they are most needed by providing the contact number for the right presenting issues, as they will not know when they should recommend their usage and with not all employees covered, knowing who is and is not, can undermine the employer benefit to these approaches. Many absence notification calls consist of, “What is wrong and when are you back?” and in an increasingly litigious age this is often not enough.

Place such problems against an external contact center taking these calls and there is no competition as to who is best placed as the service supplier will take core information, are trained in benefits optimisation and will always relay any work based accident/incident as the cause of absence to the health and safety department immediately (even the employer liability insurers if they want to know about the incident and some even have trained vocational rehabilitation services to mitigate any work-related claim)-a professionally managed approach!

Some out-sourced absence services use nurses to take calls and whilst such services have been badly received by employees and Trade Unions, is this approach worth considering? We would argue that clinical support is valuable and should not be duplicated. Where an extant Occupational Health (OH) resource exists as these are not the right people to deal with an absence as their sole role is to assess fitness for work – a good OH practitioner is a specialist and not a generalist. With a good IT system, OH services can be triaged to deal only with ‘medical’ or significant absences over time or at pre-determined points.

Furthermore with most of calls being areas where non- clinical support is needed it seems foolish to have day one clinical support. The CBI Absence and Labour survey of May 2006 stated, “Short-term minor illnesses, such as cold or flu, was overwhelmingly ranked as the most significant cause of absence.”

Our own primary data based on calls that we have taken, found that approximately 80% of the calls are for non-sickness absence (how can a nurse help with elder/child care issues?), cold/flu, headache/migraine, tummy upset/food poisoning etc. where a nurse can add little value on these conditions?

However, over time, say at 14 or 28 days continuous absence, or at specific trigger points, clinical support may be required for example after four bouts of the same absence such as headaches/migraines (could be lighting, need for eye test, ventilation, DSE regulations etc.), back pain (manual handling training, ergonomy etc.) but these issues are best dealt with by trained Occupational Health and H&S personnel and hence day one usage of clinical support seems irrelevant.

Having good notification protocols, an absence system that can identify triggers and patterns alongside a specialist OH resource are all good things to have in place but the need for a clear absence policy makes the whole process stick together.

As well as a clearly supported audit trail for long-term absence, short-term absence should be identified though objectively assessed triggers for example six occasions, 10 days, two occasions, four week-end (Monday/Friday), four repeat same absence types all in a 12 month rolling period.

Often wordings such as, “An unacceptable level of absence will be investigated,” can lead to subjective, inconsistent interpretations (with consequential tribunals!) and are frustrating for line manager and employee. Having hit the policy pattern a clear process should be illustrated consisting of three areas: continued monitoring (where the employee is honest and is then given attendance targets such as 100% for the next six months), verbal warning (where they have showed no propensity to attend more regularly) and OH referral (where a clinical issue is described as the reason for absence).

On this point any absence which relates to a disability can be discounted for the implementation of the absence policy if this is covered under the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). Holding a formal meeting (after a return to work meeting for this specific absence has been finalised), where the employee has the right to representation, and uncovering the causes of the absences in a non-confrontational way should be the objective of any absence/attendance management interview and only once the policy has been breached.

Taking notes in the meeting, asking ‘open questions’ and depersonalising the meeting, to be interested in facts and not opinion, are all recommended. Following the agreed outcome up in writing (potentially with copies of the notes made – not forgetting these can be requested by the employee under the Data Protection Act (1998) anyway) will also assist if any disputes arise.

In summary therefore short-term absence does not have to be a difficult area for employers to deal with. Good, professional, non clinical notification services can reduce short term absence by optimising benefits, gaining absence reasons to enable future healthcare expenditure to be targeted (we have stress incidences so need an EAP, we have back incidences and so need physiotherapy) and assessing work relatedness can lead to proactive case management. Having a good IT system that quantifies trigger breaches to ensure that the absence policy is enforced in a systemic, consistent and professional manner by line management and giving them confidence in their actions will pay dividends.

Finally engaging stakeholders such as HR, OH and H&S at all stages will ensure that everybody is caught and no-one is missed: for some this will be support where genuinely absent and for others policing where absence indifference and entitlement mentality proliferate. With most of our clients running at 2% absence rates or less dealing with short term absence professionally and supporting those who are genuinely sick does lead to an increase in line manager confidence and clear understanding of non-attendance implications by employees. A culture of attendance rather than non-attendance will soon follow!

Paul Avis of Employ-Mend Ltd can be contacted [email protected]

One Response

  1. Short term absences
    In my experience the greatest mistake employers and employment advisers make, is treating absences differently from any other unacceptable performance. To me it is the same as not balancing the bank rec.; or missing out an ingredient in the hotel kitchen; or leaving a burr on some engineering product. It is about time employers acknowledged this………or accept the consequences of having yet another process just for dealing with absences, which is perilously close to where we are now. People are employed to do a job, which includes being at work at a particular time. Being late or not coming at all, is just another incident for which the employee must have an acceptable explanation. If not, then address this issue the same as any other where there is an unacceptable explanation. The courts; the unions; the HR advisors et al……..they all love it when we add yet something else to the list of duties and responsibilities for managers. We must stop trying so hard to meet their timetable!!!

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