Saturday, 20 November 2010

What absence policies need to contain

Absenteeism definitely represents one of the most difficult and at the same time costly problems employers are constantly prompted to tackle. The knock-on effect it habitually produces more often than not makes a considerable impact on employee engagement and motivation, and thus on organizational performance and productivity.

The number of employers which accurately monitor the phenomenon is indeed exceedingly small. In many cases, this is due to the circumstance that these find it difficult dealing with individuals who have an unacceptable level of attendance and assume that taking appropriate action may exacerbate employee relations and make a negative impact on individual engagement. Public companies, for instance, habitually introduce effective practices to properly manage the problem on paper, but are unlikely to properly and consistently implement these in practice.

In order for employers to effectually deal with the issue these should, first and foremost, ensure that their HR function has formulated a clear absence policy. This has to be intended as a tremendously important prerequisite in that it enables organizations to be clear about how they intend to manage attendance. Copy of the policy should be also handed to new employees at the moment of their recruitment. Just to demonstrate the significance attached by the employer to this aspect, in the new hire orientation programme should be ideally also added a specific session aiming at providing individuals further explanations and clarifications of the procedure. Yet, employment law specialists should ensure that the company absence policy is clearly mentioned in the contract of employment as an integral part of the employment terms and conditions so that employees know from the outset that they have to comply with this.

The introduction of a formal written absence policy and procedure, clearly stating and describing how employees should behave during absence, how these must communicate their absence to the employer and how to eventually certify it enables employers to give open evidence of how seriously they take absenteeism. Whether employees realize that their employer pays particular attention to their attendance records, it is very likely that these adapt their behaviour accordingly. Some companies, for example, to emphasise the tremendous importance they give to attendance, use to periodically publish anonymous statistics of the overall absence levels recorded by the different units, offices or departments. This information is often offered together with a clear description of the effects which unacceptable levels of absence produce upon the employees who are regularly present.
Absence policies should be invariably formulated in clear, simple and very comprehensible terms, avoiding jargon and clearly stating employee rights and obligations during illness absence. Also in those cases in which this does not represent a legal requirement, employers should provide their employees all the details regarding the way these must behave in case of incapacity for work due to illness or injury, including any provision for sick pay. The lack of appropriate policies as well as the effective implementation of ineffective absence policies can indeed lead to an increased number of casual short-term episodes of absence.

In general, there are remarkable differences between the way absence policies and practices are managed by public and private sectors employers. Public sector employers typically introduce detailed and thorough practices, regard absence rates as a key performance indicator, put in place trigger systems enabling them to identify unacceptable levels of absence, train their line managers to properly manage absence, offer their employees access to occupational health services and provide individuals time-off for private emergencies. Notwithstanding, due to ineffective execution, all of these measures more often than not fail to meet employer expectations and in some cases also show to be counterproductive. Public sector organizations are in fact habitually less likely to discipline or dismiss employees and to restrict sick pay for absence-related reasons than private sector employers.

To effectually reduce absenteeism rates the simple introduction of policies does not clearly suffice, a consistent execution is clearly also necessary. In order for employers to attain this objective these should provide the required support to the employees genuinely ill, whereas taking firm action against the minority of people who try to take advantage of their occupational sick pay schemes. Public sector organizations find it habitually hard attaining an appropriate balance between these two activities.

Once attendance policies are devised, in order for these to produce the expected results it is necessary that these are clearly communicated to the entire workforce. This will in turn enable employees to know not only what it is expected from them, but also what support the organization may make available to them in case of illness (for instance, counselling or occupational health services).

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI, 2009) recommends employers to tailor their policies to the needs of their workforce. Absence policies should be hence formulated taking heed of the individual needs and circumstances, but should also aim at fostering employee commitment to the organizational values and the type of behaviour the employer is expected individuals to exhibit.

To give evidence of their genuine concern about employee wants, some organizations use to bargain their absence policies with trade unions, which are typically as concerned as employers about employee unacceptable sickness absence levels. The full involvement of line managers and employee representatives in the implementation of absence policies is clearly of paramount importance, too.

Regulations, employee needs and employer expectations are constantly, and it may be argued increasingly, subject to change. To ensure that the provisions included into a policy continue to be legally sound and still fit the changing circumstances, a policy review should be regularly performed. Careful, regular reviews enable employers to substantially improve their policy also on the basis of the lessons learned over time.

When performing a policy review employers should, amongst the other things, try and provide answers to the following questions:
  Does the existing policy actually favour good attendance at work?
  Have the costs of the policy been fully evaluated against its benefits?
  Do clear “come back work” procedures exist according to the different degrees of illness? For instance, an employee might be unfit to perform some activities, but might be fit to perform some others;
  Have been some specific area identified as particularly problematic and action taken accordingly?

Absence policies are different from organization to organization and highly likely to vary according to the different circumstances and needs; nonetheless, some common, valuable features can be definitely identified. The main aim of an effective absence policy is to clearly state employee rights and obligations during illness, a good absence policy should hence:

  • Provide details of the contractual sick pay terms and conditions, and clearly explain their relationship with statutory sick pay;
  • Explain in which cases, and eventually to whom, employees need to notify their absence;
  • Define after how many days of absence due to illness individuals need to fill a self-certificate form and to whom and when it has to be eventually handed, faxed or emailed;
  • Clearly explain in which cases employees cannot self-certify absence and require a fit note (UK) or a certificate from their GP;
  • Clarify that under some circumstances some adjustments may be made to assist the employees in their return to work;
  • Mention that the organization reserves the right to require employees to attend an examination by a company doctor and, with the worker’s consent, to request a report from their GP;
  • Include provisions for return-to-work interviews;
  • Provide guidance on how to behave whether absence is due to specific severe circumstances, like adverse weather conditions and pandemics;
  • Clearly state that the employees who fail to comply with the rules provided for by the absence policy may be subject to disciplinary action.
 When formulating and implementing an absence policy, some fundamental principles of best practice need to be duly considered, too. In general, employers should invariably:
  • Establish a context of mutual trust and confidence with staff and a safe and healthy environment where employees can feel at ease talking with their managers about absence causes and get their support and advice;
  • Clearly communicate that employees are not expected to attend work whether unfit, no matter how much inconvenience their absence is causing or likely to cause. This tenet, which may allow to prevent serious problems and legal responsibilities to the employer, may also strongly contribute to establish a climate of mutual trust;
  • Consult the employee doctor or a company-appointed MD in those cases in which health conditions may affect an employee ability to do his/her job;
  • Implement draconian health and safety measures to both prevent sickness and injury to occur in the workplace and create a healthy and save work environment;
  • Introduce flexible working policies;
  • Offer employees occupational health services and keep communications with absent employees (send cards and flowers where appropriate) to improve the effectiveness of retention policies and favour individual smoother return to work after a mid- to long-term absence period. 
Absence policies can indeed help to manage absenteeism, but these can contribute to prevent the frequency of the phenomenon just in part. To fully attain the objective, employers should, first and foremost, introduce sound and effective people management practices favouring and enhancing individual engagement and motivation.

Employers should also duly consider that in the cases of genuine illness, their support during employee recovery plays a particularly significant role and can represents an important step forward to build a climate of mutual trust and confidence with employees.

Research shows that the early intervention of line managers and the establishment of a two-way communication channel with employees effectively help employers to reduce absence rates and identify the underlying causes behind these.

The main aim of absence policies is to ensure that individuals can raise issues which may trouble them at an early stage so that these can be addressed before escalating and spinning out of control.

Effective absence management is also very much about aiming at creating a work environment focused on staff well-being and preventing employees to wake up in the morning and thinking “I don’t feel like going to work today” or put it in another way “I’m going to throw a sickie today.”

Longo, R., (2010), What absence policies need to contain; HR Professionals, [online].