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Bill McCulloch

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Seven steps to managing attendance


Managing absence positively and clearly can reduce a sickness rate and decrease disruption and cost absence can cause an organisation. Take seven steps to better absence management.

The average employee has seven days off work a year attributed to sickness.  This increases to 12 for those in call centres and 10 in local government employment. The cost of this is estimated between two and five times the direct salary costs. This is in addition to the disruption that long term absence or repeated spells of short term absence cause the business.

Whilst no one wants people to come to work when they are too ill to contribute, the sickness absence can be reduced if managers work to a clear, agreed system. In the light of the new Fit Note procedures for GPs introduced in April of this year, the following concepts will aid in managing all spells of sickness positively:

  • Absence attributed to sickness needs positive management. If you ignore sickness absence it is likely to get worse, so ensure that you know what is causing the sickness and if there is anything you can address to enable the person to return and contribute, try to do it. Part of a line manager’s responsibilities should be to consider this and manage the situation. The best organisations do this with a policy setting out the aims, the limits and the actions for short and long term sickness absence and rehabilitation.
  • Treat all sickness as if it is genuine initially. Many managers start off on the wrong foot by being suspicious of an employee who takes time off and this, coupled with the mild anxiety that many of us have when we are off, leads at times to difficult communications. It is best to treat absence as if it is genuine – try to get to the root cause and let the system deal with it. The adage here is “trust but verify”. Do not accuse anyone of “swinging the lead” unless there is concrete evidence.
  • Pay attention to critical times. The first day of sickness gives an opportunity for the business to assess the situation and to build a bond between the manager and the employee. By contacting the employee and supporting them, the manager can build rapport, which is useful in prompting an early return.  At the end of the first week the Fit Note comes in to play. The onus is on the company to look for modified work if this is necessary. After about a month, the employee develops a state of mind which relishes under the dubious term “the sick role”. At this point they lose bonding with the normal ways of working life – getting up at a normal time, feeling an identity with work, socialising normally etc. From then on the employee’s chances of return become less and less till they have less than 50% probability at six months away from work. It is therefore really important that communications are kept up to maintain the links withy the company. This is best done using a clear matrix of who (employee, line manager, HR, occupational health) does what and when.

When the individual returns to work, it is an ideal opportunity to review their absence and their fitness for work and design a suitable ‘return to work’ programme for a safe and effective return to normality.

  • Believe that everyone wants to be normal. When managers talk with employees about returning to work there is sometimes suspicion that they want them back at any cost rather than caring about their medical impairment.  There is now medical consensus that work of the right type is good for rehabilitating people from a psychological and social point of view but also for their physical condition. Thus it is legitimate to position this as trying to allow them to be as near normal as possible – and the part of normal that the manager has some control over is the work and the workplace. If done correctly there are benefits all round.
  • You need facts and measurements. As with any other part of business it is best to know what the facts are to be able to manage it adequately. Thus to have a system which alerts managers to an employee’s sickness and the triggers for action, which is based on accurate data is ideal. It is difficult to manage absence if there is a dispute about the facts, thus keep accurate records of sickness and related communications.
  • Good communication can go a long way to solving problems. If you don’t communicate, people will “fill in the gaps” believing whatever they want about your motives and what you are thinking. There will also be no rapport between the employee and the company after a short while. Thus good assertive communication is the key to attendance management. Managers have a duty to care for employees and a duty to cover their part of the business. When talking with sick employees (or maybe all employees) the manager should start with rapport i.e. the duty to care before addressing the reality that he has to cover the business’s production. Communication also includes keeping notes of what went on in the meetings or phone calls and even if the phone was not answered.  If the going gets tough later the notes are worth their weight in gold.
  • We did our best but we are now at the end of the road. Managers and companies have a duty to care for their staff, but there are limits. Businesses also have a duty to continue business so some people, even though they have tried their best and the organisation has tried to rehabilitate them, will not be fit for work. Thus they have reached the end of the road and the challenge is to end the relationship as amicably as possible with preservation of dignity for the individual and legal and financial protection for both parties. This stage should be considered fully as, just like sickness management of active employees, others will be watching to see how this is dealt with and will assess the company’s ways of working.

By using a clear and structured system to deal with sick employees, managers can confidently approach what is traditionally often a poorly managed aspect of business. They can develop rapport with their team with increased loyalty, be seen as good and consistent managers and reduce unnecessary absence and therefore cost.

Dr Bill McCulloch FRCP FFOM MRCGP. Kensington OH Specialists can be contacted on [email protected]


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