Survey states UK Absence rates are down, is this really a true picture?

The EEF recent Absence Survey 2014¹ reported that the number of days taken off through sickness is at a record low. Their survey states that the 330 firms included in the survey showed that in the past two years absence reached a record low of 2.1% equal to 4.9 days per worker per year. They also state that although short term absences have fallen, long term illnesses have risen.

Here at Absence Manager, we are not sure what this survey is telling us? What does 2.1% and 4.9 days per worker per year mean? How do the stats they are quoting reflect that short term absence has gone down and long term absence has gone up?

What does the phrase long term equal; how many days, has the number of episodes gone up or just the number of days someone is off? Also, this survey just talk’s about sickness absence, there is no mention of other unplanned absence? None sickness related absence causes just as much disruption and is just as costly.

It is this kind of single metric that creates so much confusion, emotion and hysteria. It is the lack of clarity that prevents action. For example, we frequently hear phrases like “our absence is only 4.2%, and is line with others” – therefore all must be fine!

Imagine if a board of Directors met and the CEO asked the Finance Director “what is our debtor position?” and the FD responded “£2M, which is normal”. Would the CEO just accept that? Unlikely, usual questions and metrics include knowing how old each debt is, how much for each debtor and a break down for the Directors to discuss.

So, is just one metric enough for absence? Does the 4.9 days above tell us anything useful? Why not ask:

  • Who is off now?
  • How old is each absence?
  • Who has been off the most frequently?

Any single absence metric, including ‘days per FTE’ can be very misleading. If a team of ten employees had one person off for one year. The average FTE metric would be 220 working days divided by 10, indicating all employees have had an average of 22 days off. Of course this is not true; only one person has been absent once.

In comparison, if two people have had 20 single days off each it would mean a total of 40 individual days of absence, meaning 40 cases of disruption. This would only equate to 4 days per FTE, indicating there is no problem. However, 8 employees, all with 100% attendance records have had to watch while two colleagues keep taking additional days off. Is that fair? There is a problem but the FTE metric alone does not show it.

In order for organisations to act and drive down the cost of absence, they need to see the true picture and be able to see where the problems actually are. In order to create this TRUE picture they need a clear and robust process, supported by understandable and workable policies.

Analytics and real time data are vital to allow organisations to fully understand their 2nd biggest people process – Absence. It allows for;

  • Relevant real time data collected
  • Consistency
  • Everyone on the same page
  • Everyone speaking the same language
  • Leadership and HR tool
  • You can see what’s happening
  • Makes you ask better questions

Why not apply similar thinking to absence as used elsewhere in the business? The same old, age old absence problem can be much easier to work with, if the same age old principals are applied from other areas of business.

Rather than looking at 4.9 days, let’s ask:

  • Who is absent now?
  • How long for?
  • Frequency of absence?
  • Total cost of absence, including indirect costs?
  • What are we doing about any issues identified by the questions above?
  • How can we make our absence process more efficient and robust?

These questions can be applied at employee and manager level, thus highlighting not just under performing employees but also under performing managers who are potentially the cause of higher absence in their teams.

Should absence and its various metrics not be a board level balance sheet focus? Should there not be a more transparent view of what these commonly quoted absence stats mean?

As the 2nd largest employee process it should not be a 3rd rate process which is given lip service rather than focused executive attention. All other major processes are now regularly outsourced, why not outsource Absence?

Major processes already outsourced ²:

  • Payroll 35%
  • ERP Maintenance 34%
  • Employee contact Centre 21%
  • “Record to Report” only 6%

Join the next stage of the HR process evolution to understand the benefits of outsourcing Absence can bring to your organisation.

Call us now for more details.


² (HFS and London School of Economics Outsourcing Unit,2011)

Matthew has extensive business experience having worked in production environments, product development, sales and at board level with a number of employers during his early business years.

He has worked in diverse range of businesses, ranging from water sports clothing to medical technology, development and consulting. He totally understands that customer focus is the key to delivering technology and services that really work for the user and the customer.