Don’t Leave Line Managers Hanging

Dr Steve Boorman at Empactis examines the lack of tools available for line managers to deal with the complicated issues that lead to staff absence and health problems and the role technology can play in affecting change.

The divide between home and work is far less marked than it was just a decade ago. Today, a typical employee may check their emails on their phone when they wake up, work from home a few days a month, and start and finish later once a week in order to drop their kids off at childcare.

Change cuts both ways

For all it is commonplace for employees to take work home, it is equally common for staff to bring personal issues into the workplace. Problems to do with children, personal finances, relationships and more, are now not only regular talking points in line manager meetings but they also commonly lead to unplanned absence. However, those managers are both completely unequipped to deal with such problems and lack the tools they require to prevent them resulting in sick leave – and it’s an issue that businesses need to start paying attention to.

The increasing burden of management

One response to an unplanned absence caused by the stresses and strains of being an ‘always-on’ employee, is for the manager to dismiss the underlying problems as “nothing to do with work”.

This, however, is a response fraught with danger. At best the staff member who raised the issue is likely to feel let down and ignored – which means resentment and disengagement set in – making future absences increasingly likely.

More worryingly the absence could grow into a much bigger and costly case. If the employee claims to be stressed it will become a health issue, as well as an absence case, that the employer has a duty to provide support for. If the absence becomes lengthy or, on return to work, the employee performance suffers, the case could soon have a disciplinary element attached to it too. And, of course, at this point the employee resentment and line manager’s failure to follow a process, is likely to result in a grievance case. This shows how a single absence can very quickly escalate into a much larger, complex case – simply because a line manager didn’t know how to deal with the initial problem and didn’t have the tools available to guide them through the correct policy and procedure.

A trio of training

Business owners, therefore, need to take steps to ensure that their middle managers are empowered to deal with such sensitive and difficult issues. First, managers must be given adequate training, which should cover three main areas:

  • Performance management;
  • Managing difficult relationships; and
  • Managing difficult conversations.

Tools and technologies

Beyond this, line managers should be provided with solutions that reduce the HR strain that is placed on them. Technologies that simplify processes, seamlessly integrating them into the fabric of the business, enable line managers to spend less time dealing with HR related issues while ensuring that policies are consistently and transparently applied to all employees.

Using tools such as the Empactis solution, a single employee absence should trigger an automated workflow, guiding and prompting line managers through the correct processes, while minimalizing both the time it takes to follow correct policy and reducing the scope for error or inconsistencies. This includes prompting a line manager to contact an absent employee in an agreed timescale, automatically populating and completing self-certification forms, triggering relevant referrals to occupational health, automatically notifying senior management and payroll and the scheduling of back-to-work meetings – while also automatically recording all steps taken to ensure the employee can return to work.

By removing the need for managers to wade through 100-page HR policies when dealing with particular issues, it reduces the risk of employees feeling that they are being treated unfairly or inconsistently. With a watertight record of all communications and automatically-generated next actions, it’s far easier for managers to follow a recommended process – and check back on it later.

Taking the burden of HR away from managers and onto technology enables both employees and managers alike to be more engaged and creative in tackling more sensitive and complex issues. Managers are more able to give employees their full attention, making difficult conversations simpler and easier to handle. Meanwhile, employees feel more valued and fairly treated by the organisation, making them more likely to be honest about relevant personal issues, and consequently more engaged with their work.

Performance management

Lastly, the performance of managers against these processes should be properly tracked and managed, so that it’s clear when a manager is struggling to cope with the burden of employees raising personal issues. Again technology can play its part, automatically flagging-up failure to follow processes with senior managers who can then step in quickly and before a situation escalates and more policies are broken.

The blurring of the divide between home and work is, in many ways, positive. But we need to stop letting down line managers in this new era, and help them to support their staff. Failure to do so won’t just result in overwhelmed managers but also in an unhappy, unhealthy, disengaged workforce. By utilising technology to carry out the heavy-lifting in HR, businesses will enable line managers to properly manage staff, and avert the challenges that inevitably arise when employees don’t feel looked after.