By Francesca James

Absenteeism cost businesses more than just a day out of the office and can be significantly damaging to businesses who don't know how To deal with it.

To effectively manage absenteeism in the workplace, employers must have a consistent and thorough plan in place.

Elspeth Watt, HR consultant and director of Calibre HR & Training, Kent says that:

'Absence is often not just down to sickness or ill-health, it can be a sign of an underlying problem, an excuse to cover a domestic emergency or a way to evade a boring or unrewarding job.

Clear policies on unpaid time off for emergencies will make employees more honest in their requests for time off. Some employers allow two or three ‘duvet’ days a year, for those days when it really is too much. This is usually compensated for by a slightly less generous holiday entitlement, but still meeting statutory requirements. Such duvet days give the individual some control which can help to reduce absenteeism.'

Elspeth has offered Fresh Business Thinking five key pointers for positively managing sickness absence:

· Care needs to be taken to manage sickness absence in a humane and caring way. Employers also need to recognise the difference between genuine sickness and the collection of odd days of sickness which can mount up and make a difference to how the business functions.

· Absences due to a disability must of course be handled in a sensitive and constructive way and now includes those with progressive illnesses. In such circumstances it is advisable to refer to an occupational health advisor who can provide expert guidance on what can be done to ensure the individual can resume some aspects of his/her work.

· Do not forget the Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act require employers to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments.

· It is also important to remember that absences due to pregnancy must be handled in a way that does not discriminate against the woman.

In the case of all absences due to sickness, it is good policy to:

o Keep in touch while they are away from work, striking the right balance between light touch distance management and overly pressurising.

o Have a return to work interview which demonstrates you miss an employee’s contribution when they are not there.

o Schedule return to work meetings to unearth underlying issues which might be causing the absence — including stress or undue pressure.

o Follow up on any issues and provide feedback to the employee on your actions.

o Arrange re-inductions for employees returning from long periods of sickness absence where things have changed or where new people have joined.

But what if an employee needs to take longer than a few days or a week? The management of long term sick employees can be expensive and can prevent the progression and continuity of your organisation.

However, despite this you still need to make sure you have a plan and strict procedure to follow to prevent unfair dismissal claims etc.

Elspeth says that:

'Managing long term absence is a challenge. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development demonstrates that long-term absences (over eight days) account for almost 40% of lost time in the workplace. One fifth of absences are for over four weeks, statistically this is a very large drain on employers who are struggling to cope in difficult times.

· It is vital to keep in touch with employees who are on long-term sick leave. This demonstrates you care and you value the contribution they make to your business. But there is a world of difference between genuine concern and interest in an employee’s well-being and harassing a sick employee. Care must be exercised in the case of those that may have a long term disability or a progressive illness. Using an occupational health advisor can be a useful tool to ensure a return to work.

· Those who have been away from work for some time should be encouraged to consider a phased return assuming their health permits - a shorter working day or reduced days for a period of time to ease the transition back to work. Workplace risk assessments are a legal requirement for staff returning from long-term sick (and for pregnant women) and may highlight issues affecting all staff.

· Managers handling long-term sickness cases and return to work interviews should be aware of company policies and procedures and of the sensitive and confidential nature of information about the individual’s health.

Absenteeism in the workplace can be controlled if your business knows how to deal with it and if adequate measures are taken.