CIPD absence benchmarking – apples with apples or apples with trucks?

Last week the CIPD released the results of their annual survey into absence management in the UK with some interesting results. The headline figure is that the average number of days lost per employee has fallen from 7.6 days in last year’s survey to 6.6 days in this year’s – a significant reduction of 13% and as always a very welcome result but have they given us a true picture? Of particular interest was this figure – 56% more companies surveyed than last year are developing line manager capability. At Absence Manager our mantra for absence reduction is ‘line manager accountability’ so it was particularly encouraging to see that businesses are increasingly recognising the crucial role that these individuals play. It is no coincidence that there is a correlation between this increase and the decrease in absence levels! The year on year comparisons highlighted within the report certainly show that the survey has its merit as a barometer of absence across the UK. However, for anyone hoping to use this as a benchmarking tool or justification for their own company’s absence rate I would urge you to tread with caution for a few crucial reasons:

  • How closely does the data compare to your business? For large businesses in particular the data is very much skewed against you with only 28% of those businesses surveyed employing over 1000 heads and 20% not answering for the whole organisation. When you filter this data further to look at just your own industry you realise you are only looking at a sample of a handful of companies, which significantly reduces its value as a valid comparison with your own business.
  • How reliable is the data? You could question why anybody would want to lie on an anonymous survey but even so, the methods for absence data collection will vary considerably from one business to the next what you have is a set of data with an incredibly low reliability.
  • What other measures are not considered? Yes, size of company, geographical location and industry sector are all contributory factors to an absence rate but just using these measures assumes that all businesses are created equal. Much bigger influences are the systems that the business has in place to deal with managing absence; the morale of the workforce; the health and wellbeing initiatives that are in place. Who knows how your business compares to those surveyed.
  • What does an absence rate even mean? An average rate is a very crude and in many ways meaningless figure when it comes to actually tackling levels of absence across a business as it covers a multitude of sins. CEO’s would not accept a single figure for the debtor position without the detail to back it up so why is this so often acceptable for absence? To truly have the best chance of maximising attendance, businesses need a complete understanding of what is happening right now, not just using a broad figure and saying “well, it’s less than the national average so we’re alright”. Using a percentage is only one measure of the cost of absence and still hides a lot of costly complexity and inefficiency so even at a perceived low level, there are still considerable savings to be made.

So, instead of using the CIPD report to look outward and find out whether your absence rate is acceptable Executives should be looking inward and asking “have we got robust enough processes to give us reliable, meaningful and actionable business metrics immediately”. If the answer is no then benchmarking against any other businesses is not so much comparing apples with apples as comparing apples with trucks!