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18th September 2013

Absence: Understanding the data

In the UK, sickness absence costs businesses £600 per year per employee. according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. That is an average figure but, if it’s true for your business, it will be costing you dear.

Of course some level of sickness absence is inevitable – so what should you regard as acceptable? Figures I read some time ago (Incomes Data Services was probably the source) have stood me in good stead in evaluating different circumstances. The figures are 1%, 2% and 4%.

Managerial staff tend to have low levels of absence, around 1%. It may be that a sense of responsibility accounts for the low levels, or perhaps that more control over one’s work activities lowers stress. Some of this percentage will include managers with long term health problems therefore those without such problems will normally have excellent attendance.  So if you have a manager taking more than 2 or 3 days sickness absence, doing so on more than a rare basis, the reasons need to be understood. Something most probably is wrong. Managerial absence is invariably down to either poor health or a seriously poor relationship environment. Poor health is generally easy to establish, to name and to accept. “Reasonable adjustments” or “work-arounds “ may be possible. However it may be more problematic to diagnose the reasons for a poor relationship environment.

Concepts to look for will include role ambiguity. For example a manager might need to satisfy the conflicting expectations of two, or more people, who are senior to him. Sometimes a manager is undermined by her boss going to her staff directly.  Or it may be that the manager simply does not know clearly what is expected of them; or what is expected may not be achievable. Other sources of absence in managers may be excessive workload or the need to cope with too much change. Owners and Chief Executives have to be mindful of how much change they may be able to bring about safely in a given time. Of course in some cases even the Chief Exec may not have much control over change.

Absence levels of office workers and other staff  are higher, on average double that of managerial staff.  Two or three days off per year may not give rise to concern. Five or six every year should. We can speculate on the reasons for higher levels but among the possible causes are those that apply to managers, coupled with much less control over their relationship environment.

“Stress” is now the number one explanation on staff sick notes; although I might argue that stress can be a cause but it is not an illness. However, where it appears, it is important to treat stress seriously. It can, of course, be a smoke screen for dishonesty – but never make that assumption. Treat “stress” as a problem to be solved. Tackle it empathically and if it is non-genuine it will often soon fade away because maintaining a pretence is stressful in itself.  Although much stress originates in the home, poor management (unfortunately) can be a major source of work stress. You cannot do much about the former but you should be able to address the latter. You need to understand the reasons for the stress (via a return to work interview for example) so you can take appropriate steps. It may well be valuable to involve others in resolving problems such as an occupational health adviser or an HR consultant.

Manual workers, which would include carers and domestic staff, tend towards average levels of 4%; double again. Care work may not be as demanding as many industrial jobs of the past so in practice I would expect this percentage to be lower in our sector. But someone with eight days of absence in any year should merit attention. And if this is intermittent absence then it will need to be tackled.

To all the reasons that apply to other groups we might add physical and nutritional health. These could apply to the other groups too but I speculate that they are more common in this group. Back ache is an extremely common cause of absence and employers can take some steps to reduce the risk. Lifting policies (or non-lifting policies), training in lifting techniques and mechanical assistance may all be relevant. Poor nutrition among low income families may be a cause and many employees in the care sector are in the low income group. Dietary education and domestic skills for your employees could be considered; although this would need to be done sensitively to avoid claims of paternalism. Many care homes offer a full meal to staff as well as their service users. Paternalism not withstanding, this is not only a way of boosting low incomes at minimal cost but may help ensure that employees are well nourished and hence healthier.

This article makes one underlying assumption – that you know the level of absence of employees in your business. If you don’t – then that is the starting point. £600 per employee per year says you need to start.

Malcolm Martin - HR Expert Contributor


*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

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