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How to manage unplanned absence

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Did you know that in 2016, it’s estimated that 137.3m working days were lost due to illness or injury in the UK? Or that the financial impact on UK businesses from sickness absences is estimated to be at least £29 billion per year?

The impact of unplanned absences isn’t just monetary though. Absenteeism affects every business, regardless of industry, whether it’s impacting productivity, profitability, or even workforce morale. In this post, we’ll ask exactly what is absenteeism, what causes absences, and how it can be managed on both a professional and personal level.

Managing Employee Absenteeism Due to COVID-19

We have updated this article to specifically discuss how employers should look to manage employee absenteeism during the COVID-19 outbreak. The outbreak has caused significant disruption to all aspects of daily life including working practise. Below, we outline the steps that should be taken by employees and employers for COVID-19-related sickness absence. However, we recommend referring to the government guidelines and advice surrounding business support during the outbreak.

If an employee is unable to work due to sickness, they are required to follow the companies’ sickness policy; informing their line manager of their requirement of absence as soon as possible. In light of coronavirus, there are additional guidelines that employees and employers should be aware of. Notably:

  • Employees should not attend work if they or anyone they live with develops a fever (this is classed as a temperature of 37.8 degrees or over), and/or a continuous cough

These are classified symptoms of Coronavirus and should be treated seriously. Your employees have a responsibility to inform their employer of their own, or their households, symptoms as soon as they appear and should action the following:

Self-isolation: When to take it and sick pay

The government has published full self-isolation guidelines online here. Please refer to these if you or anyone in your household is exhibiting symptoms, or if you have been in contact with anyone who has been exhibiting these symptoms.

Employees should take action and self-isolate from the moment the symptoms start. Those who live on their own should self-isolate for 7 days, whilst employees living in a shared household with other people (family members, housemates) should self-isolate with all members of their household for a total of 14 days from the first symptoms.

If after 7 days the first person to have experienced symptoms is clear of the symptoms they can return to their normal routine. Those in the household should continue to self-isolate for a further 7 days as this covers the full incubation period of the virus.

Typically, statutory sick pay is payable from the fourth day that you are off work sick. However, for coronavirus-related sickness, SSP is payable from day 1 if an employee has been self-isolating for a minimum of 4 days. However, this is only applicable if the first day of absence was on or after the 13th March 2020. As an employer, you are expected to pay your employees if you have asked them to stay away and self-isolate, they are self-isolating because they have symptoms or they are self-isolating in response to medical advice.

Employers can find out if they can use the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme to claim back employees’ coronavirus-related Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) here and more information about sick pay on the ACAS site here.

What is absenteeism?

Firstly, it’s important to establish the difference between absence and absenteeism. Any company which utilises a human workforce is going to be affected by absence to some degree. As humans, we get sick, and when that happens it’s important to take the time off needed to recover properly.

Absenteeism, however, is the term generally used to refer to a pattern of unplanned or unexplained absences from work. This can include sick days, but also time off for injuries, extenuating circumstances, or simply absences without a clear reason. Absenteeism is an important metric for businesses to measure because it is a strong indicator of the overall health of a workforce – both in terms of sickness, and in terms of employee morale and job satisfaction.

It’s vital to tackle any instances of absenteeism head-on, to support both the employee and the employer. If a pattern of unexplained absences is allowed to continue, the problem is likely to only get worse and have a greater impact on both parties, both emotionally and financially.

What is presenteeism?

When discussing absenteeism, you should also be aware of its counterpart: presenteeism. Presenteeism occurs when an employee goes to work, even though they really ought to take time off due to sickness, compassionate leave, or another reason which causes a lack of productivity. The reasons behind presenteeism can be varied, but it often crops up in high-pressure workplaces where employees have high workloads, poor sick pay, or worry about their job security. In these environments, the downsides of taking a day off can seem so high that employees ‘soldier on’ and come into work regardless. While this might sound positive in terms of short-term productivity, it actually brings more detriment than benefit in the long-term.

What are the effects of absenteeism on businesses?

From the employer’s perspective, absenteeism can significantly impact both the quality and the quantity of a workforce’s output. In industries where workers are managed via a shift rota, unplanned absences can also be a thorn in the side of the supervisor who needs to ensure work is distributed evenly across a team. Not to mention the obvious downside of paying employees to work a set number of hours, but then discovering instances of clocking in late/clocking out early, or ‘time theft’.

For the employee, unplanned absences can make it hard to feel like part of the team and contribute to increased stress levels if they fall behind on their workload or other responsibilities. If the reasons behind the absences are related to mental health, missing work can also contribute to a lack of routine which may be helpful to maintain while dealing with any mental health issues. Of course, for more serious instances of absenteeism, this can also hamper long-term career progression, job proficiency, and, if unresolved, result in disciplinary action and even dismissal.

What are the most common causes and reasons for absenteeism?

There are a whole host of reasons which can contribute to absenteeism, but here is a selection of some of the common factors which crop up:

Sickness or injury

A certain level of absence is perfectly normal, and helps to prevent employees bringing germs into the workplace and spreading illnesses to their coworkers. An environment which discourages absence even when necessary, risks inviting in presenteeism. Open communication and trust between the employee and manager are important for managing this balance.

Bullying

Bullying doesn’t always stop when we leave school. Employees who experience bullying or harassment whilst at work may find it hard to come to work, and this can also contribute towards poor mental health. Managers should be proactive in dealing with any bullying incidents and make it clear that there is a zero-tolerance policy in place.

Low workforce morale

If your workforce struggles to get along with one another, or has conflict with management, employees may be more likely to be absent. This can lead to a lack of engagement and commitment to their role, which can in turn cause further unwillingness to come to work. Team-building events or social activities can help to prevent this, as well as encouraging proactive feedback from the employees.

Childcare issues

If an employee is struggling to secure reliable childcare during their working day, this can lead to late starting and early finishing of the work day. It can also mean that sometimes parents need to take time off at short notice. Be understanding of this, and keep the line of communication open regarding their schedule.

Stress

High levels of stress at work can make it extremely hard for workers to face coming in day after day. Untackled stress can also lead to physical illness and impact mental health. Be sure to keep an eye on employee workload, as well as any other workplace tensions which could be a source of stress, and open the conversation if you suspect a team member is feeling overwhelmed.

Burnout

Similarly to stress, burnout can have a significant impact on employee health and wellbeing. It’s important to stamp out any workaholic tendencies in staff members before overworking catches up to them. Be mindful of the hours your employees are working, particularly if your company utilises flexible or remote working.

Lack of flexible working

Workplaces with strict working hours may experience absenteeism from rebellious employees who prefer to manage their own time rather than sticking to an unnecessarily rigid schedule. Consider whether this is something your company can look to introduce on a trial basis, and see how it impacts productivity and employee wellbeing.

How to deal with employee absenteeism

While it may not always be possible to prevent any issues that can lead to absenteeism, there are several things that managers can do to mitigate the impact and support employees with any challenges they are facing.

Define a clear attendance policy

By having a robust attendance policy in place, both the employee and employees will have clarity over what is expected regarding attendance and what to do if there are absences.

Be empathetic and take the time to understand the cause

If an employee is exhibiting a pattern of absenteeism, there is likely an important reason for it that you can work together to resolve. Take care not to jump to the worst conclusion and presume that they are taking advantage, particularly if the absenteeism is out of character or the first time the issue has cropped up.

Approaching the conversation with any kind of hostility will be counterproductive and even further contribute to any problems that could be contributing to the absences. Be aware that everyone is fighting their own battles, even if those battles are invisible. Kindness and understanding will go a long way in getting the issue resolved gently, in a way that benefits both parties.

Be flexible

By accommodating an amount of flexibility in working hours, remote working, or even shift rotas, this adjustment can make it much easier for employees to manage their working hours and shift patterns in a way which works for them. While some employers can be reluctant to give an inch in case people take a mile, the vast majority of workers will appreciate the gesture and not abuse the trust they have been given. This can also increase a sense of company loyalty in the long run.

Keep track of absence

Accurate recording of employee attendance is really important for being able to keep on top of any absenteeism issues. After all, you can only manage a problem once you’ve identified it in the first place. Most companies know the value of recording absences in some way, but relying on manual spreadsheets can lead to human error, take up more time, and make it harder to identify any problems that do exist. Using reliable time and attendance software makes absences much easier to manage, and any potential problems will be automatically flagged to you with custom reports.

Managing absenteeism is a tricky but essential role of all people managers. Make sure you’re well equipped to deal with any issues by creating an environment of open communication and having a robust understanding of employee attendance on a team and individual basis.

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