There is scope for businesses to effectively manage staff absence and minimise the associated issues such as low employee morale, significant expense and decreased productivity. Not everyone will be fit to attend work on every working day, and that should be built into any strategic business plan. However, creating and implementing a plan which deals with absence management and employee health issues should be a priority in tackling the issues to ensure the health and well-being of staff and the efficient functioning of the organisation.

These are our top tips for any plan for preventing and managing ill health:

1. Communication: Communication is key and any changes should be communicated to the workforce transparently at an early stage, consulting with staff where appropriate before taking decisions. It is important to strike the right balance when managing sickness absence not to scare employees into attending the workplace when they are too unwell to work (or likely to be infectious) but encouraging attendance and preventing non-genuine sickness absences.

2. Health and safety risk assessments: Health and safety risk assessments should not just be a tick-box exercise. These should be viewed as useful tools to aid businesses to assess and control their risks.

3. Workshops and training sessions: Consider providing training for managers on absence management in accordance with company policy. Issues often arise because of misunderstandings and miscommunication between the employee and the business. Absences should be handled with sensitivity and never presumed to be disingenuous unless the employer has good reason.

4. Healthier workforce: Consider health and well-being initiatives and schemes which can be made available to employees. This may include teaming up with external support partners such as mental health professionals and counsellors; and providing medical screening, exercise and mindfulness education. Evidence has shown that a happier and healthier workforce reduces issues relating to sickness absence and increases employee morale.

5. Stress in the workplace: Mental health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the workplace and will undoubtedly prevent employees from performing at their best. Employers should ensure that employees are able to effectively manage their workload, look out for early warning signs and have the appropriate support tools in place.

6. Isolated employees: The “new normal” of frequent working from home risks leaving many employees feeling isolated from those attending the workplace. Ensure that your staff working patterns allow for employees working flexibly to feel integrated in the workplace and have access to as many benefits and health services as possible. 

7. Pay and benefits: If the budget permits, is it time to offer enhanced benefits such as sick pay, medical expenses insurance and permanent health insurance? It is important to strike a right balance when considering these benefits as often sick pay schemes which are too generous are more at risk of being misused, but they may be badly needed in the current climate to support unwell colleagues. Sick days can sometimes be used by employees who are exhausted from the job and require a break.  It is equally important to ensure that staff are using their holiday entitlement.   

8. Policies: Check that existing absence management policies and procedures are effective, up to date and provide clarity. Keep the policies and procedures current by periodically communicating with the workforce in an open and transparent manner to inform them of any changes.

9. Systems: Review the absence management systems in place to ensure they are meeting the needs of the business including any occupational health service which the employer provides. Monitoring absence levels should be a key part of any system as the business will need to know what kind of absences it is dealing with in order to manage these effectively. Establishing a culture where employees feel supported will bring benefits to the business and the employee.

10. Data and feedback: Look out for patterns in data such as higher absenteeism in certain teams, seasonal trends and spikes in certain types of absences. Look out for signs that particular employees or teams may need additional support or changes. Perhaps an employee has personal issues or caring responsibilities and would instead benefit from a flexible working pattern or reduced hours. Higher absences in particular teams could show that they are under too much pressure or being overworked.

11. Budgets:  review the assumptions on which financial budgets are prepared (both in relation to revenue and costs) to ensure that accurate assumptions are being made in assessing likely attendance levels at work, productivity and the cost of programmes designed to prevent ill health and to provide support to unwell members of staff.

Take home point

As with any strategic plan, ensure that actions are delegated to the appropriate people within the business, objectives are set and outcomes are measured and reflected upon. Our top tip would be to focus on communication and delivery of information to employees – don’t rely on the staff handbook to do the talking.


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