Response to CIPD Absence Survey 2012

I´ve just read the CIPD annual Absence Survey for 2012 and whilst it is always good to see absence management being discussed and promoted, it is as frustrating as ever that the focus remains on “absence levels”. As always, absence is being measured by average days lost per employee which I think is a fundamental mistake and one I try to explain below.

Dr Jill Miller, from the CIPD who wrote the foreword does speak a lot of sense and highlights the continued issues facing employers. She also describes a number of key points that I always try to communicate to our clients. She says: “Despite decreasing absence levels, it is imperative to continue to manage absence effectively, focusing on well being and being proactive to address early warning signs” She goes on to say “Overall, a proactive approach to managing absence, which includes effective training, involvement and support for line managers remains critical to success”

With the impending November publication of the recommendations from the 2011 government sickness absence review, Dr Miller points out, sickness absence is also a significant focus for policy-makers.

Helen Dickinson, People Director at Simplyhealth also contributes to the foreword and says “The vital role of managers (in absence management) cannot be disputed”

It is this common theme of the importance of line managers which I whole heartedly agree with.

However, line managers are faced with increasing responsibility, workloads and ever more complex HR policies. So Absence Management is just another complex issue for them to deal with.

The complexity is not helped by the focus on “absence levels” which is both confusing and misleading. If a small number of employees have very long absences, their lost working days are added to the total which is divided by the total employee workforce. This means the total working days lost per employee figure is a misleading and meaningless number. It is also too easy to discount absence as being not a problem “because it is only 7.5 days per employee, which is an improvement on the 9 days it used to be” – Have all employees improved? Are all employees bad attendees? Of course not, we need more detail to see a true picture. What is much more interesting and meaningful is to know how many episodes of absence is the average, combined with average length and to break out absence episodes of more than 20 days. Why is this important? The CIPD report shows that most absence episodes (~60%) are up to 7 days. In our experience at Absence Manager, more than 80% are 7 days or less. This means that most absence is short term. In other words the actual number of absence events is a key target for reducing overall absence. The key questions are – How often and for How long?

Whilst The Government Review and most Absence papers focus on clinical interventions to reduce absence, clinicians can only really positively affect the longer spells, which are fewer than 20% of the actual episodes. Our view here is often supported by Occupational Health professionals who are fed up with being seen as the magician who fixes all absence issues! In order to reduce the number of absence episodes, the main intervention required is improved engagement between line managers and employees, supported by HR and workable HR policies.

If a manager knows what an acceptable attendance record looks like and how their HR policy deals with an unacceptable record, they can act to manage the small minority of employees who have a poor record. In addition, when a good employee suddenly develops a bad pattern of absence, support can be called upon to encourage an open discussion about how to handle such a situation and hep the employee back into a normal pattern. It is very interesting to note that the Unions are often quoted as “being difficult” when it comes to managing absence. My own personal experience could not be more of a contrast. When I have met Unions they have always been keen to have open and constructive discussion. The problem they usually face is that there are not accurate and open records for sharing and debate. Click here for full press release.