Perennial Sickness Absence Problem

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presenteeismSickness absence has been an issue for managers as long as I can remember.

Many years ago an ex-employee phoned me to complain that his final salary was incorrect. He was very upset. On checking, it was clear that he had been paid all monies due, and this was explained to him. He lamented that whilst he had been paid his holiday pay for unused holiday, he had not been paid his sick pay for unused sick days. He saw sick pay as a right and as a monetary amount that was rightfully his, since he had not taken any sick leave in the sickness year.

This idea of sickness as a right – or even sickness as something that management plan for, and hence can be drawn on by staff – prevails in some firms. The reason why management budget for sickness is something that management should communicate. Once explained, the myth of sickness as a right should be easy to dispel.

But back the sickness debate.

Absence Benchmark

According to the Office for National Statistics there are 30.9 million people in work. Their figures show 131 million days lost in sickness absence in 2013. That’s an average of 4.2 days per worker.

That’s a simple benchmark for all managers. Managers should compare their firms with this.

But what does this sickness level mean in real terms? Lets assume an employee is absent due to sickness for 4.2 days.. Let’s assume that the firm provides the statutory holiday allowance of 28 days (and that the employee works full time). That’s 28 days holiday to allocate per holiday year. There are 260 working days in a year, based on a five day working week. Take off the holiday and the firm now has 232 days of available effort. By taking ‘sick days’ employees increase their holiday allocation by 4 days and decrease their productivity accordingly. If more absence is tolerated, that reduced productivity is reduced further.

Holidays for Recuperation

Now, the idea of holidays was to allow staff to recuperate from the tasks of work. That’s actually the legal requirement today and a useful concept for managers to grasp. Managers must not therefore do anything to reduce that opportunity for staff to recuperate – and it means, for example, that staff cannot be encouraged to take holiday in place of sick leave.

Absence takes two forms; short-term absence, which is where someone is off sick for one or two days at a time; and long-term absence where someone is absent for an extended continuous period of say two weeks. Short-term absence is much more disruptive to business. Not knowing when people are going to be in work and not knowing who will have to cover their work, and when, makes staffing difficult to manage.

Absence Policy and Procedure

So what can be done? Implementing a sickness absence policy that deals with absence once it triggers a certain number of days and/or a certain number of occurrences will help in the management of sickness absence. The exact system used to manage the trigger process doesn’t actually matter – a simple excel spread sheet, the Bradford index or some other metric can be used to monitor.

The critical consideration is how the absence will be managed, and how staff perceive the system. Managers must act as soon as absence occurs, and not once some arbitrary threshold is exceeded some moths later.

Working the Policy

A quick ‘back to work’ discussion can be useful in checking that the absence was bona fide and that there’s nothing that management need do to avoid future occurrence. Staff must not fear the sickness absence system. They should not drag themselves and their illness in to work or take unpaid leave just because they fall ill.

The sickness absence process is not a tool to beat staff over the head with when they are sick. It is a process for managing absence, with the aim of getting staff back to work as soon as practicable. Where it’s really not possible to get them back to work, the system should be used to compassionately dismiss them on the basis that they are not capable of performing in their role.

Perennial Sickness Absence Problem

A budgeted number of sick-days is not a right but a way of management accounting for lost productivity. And company sick-pay (where the firm pays full salary or wages for a period) is definitely not a right. It is a benefit awarded to staff as part of their contract of employment. It’s a benefit to help genuinely sick staff to feel supported whilst they are away from work. Company sick-pay – for example, allowing staff a month off on full pay when sick – does have huge advantages to the business, but with that benefit comes an obligation on staff to not abuse the benefit. That benefit needs to be managed.

Sickness absence must be managed effectively using appropriate tools. And as for ‘throwing a sickie’; that’s the topic of another blog! meanwhile, if you need help managing sickness absence, call us.

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