26/03/2014

By Helen Straw, HR expert and managing director of The Personnel Partnership,

Absent employees are a big problem for businesses, especially during the winter months, due to coughs, colds and flu, not to mention adverse weather conditions. But what can employers do to prevent and minimise the impact of absence on business?

Here are my top tips:

1. Develop a robust and clear attendance management policy – among other things it needs to include a notification procedure so employees know what to do if they are sick and can’t come to work. Who do they need to contact, what time do they need to make contact by and what info do they need to tell you?

2. Consider incorporating non-medical absence into your attendance management policies and procedures. For example, adverse weather could mean some employees are unable to get to work. Your policy should also clearly outline the circumstances in which employees are entitled to time off for dependants or parental leave. This will avoid confusion and also prevent employees calling in sick when the real reason for their absence is a childcare issue.

3. Measure your absence levels; Do you know how many days your employees are absent each month / quarter / year? Do you compare year on year? If you don’t measure, you won’t know how you are doing!

4. Monitor and benchmark; According to the Office for National Statistics, the sickness absence rate for all workers was 2% in 2013, which is 4.4 days per worker. How does this compare to your workforce? In addition to recording absence, look at patterns and try and identify when and why particular trends occur such as increased absence levels during the winter months. By understanding the patterns of absence in your organisation you will be able to plan for staff and minimise the impact on your business.

5. Involve your managers / supervisors in the absence management process; they must be at the forefront of all discussions and have direct access to the absence statistics.

6. Your most effective tool is for line managers to carry out a return to work discussion with the employee after every absence, regardless of its length.

7. Consider use of “trigger points” that will activate a more formal process if intermittent absence rates are unacceptable. Sometimes making it clear to an employee what their levels of absence are and expressing your concerns is all it takes to get them back on track. Over the winter months you could consider implementing more stringent absence triggers, such as three non-medical absences in a three month period.

8. Deal compassionately with longer term absence (4 weeks +), keep in appropriate contact with the employee, meet with them, find out the prognosis, what the likelihood is of them returning to work etc.

9. Be clear of any potential disability the employee may have due to their long term absence, so communication with the employee and also seeking medical information is key either via their GP or by using an Occupational Health Service.

10. Employee well-being can help reduce absence levels in the first place. If you know that you have particularly high sickness levels due to colds and flu during the winter months, it may be worth investing in flu vaccinations for staff. Also, be proactive; consider flexible working in the winter months and practical alternatives to taking annual leave for missed time. For example, some employees may agree to make the time up at a later date or consider swapping shifts. Also take into consideration Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and higher stress levels during winter. To keep staff on top form you could offer some training sessions on spotting the signs of stress and simple coping mechanisms to combat it before it becomes a more serious issue. By creating a positive working environment for your employees you will not only be helping them improve their lives but will also be benefiting the business. Higher levels of motivation = less absence!

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