Looking after your employees

Effective absence management and a persistent focus on employee wellbeing are crucial elements for a healthy and productive workforce. The CIPD’s 2010 Absence Management survey, in partnership with Simplyhealth, confirms the importance of maintaining this focus through difficult and uncertain times, particularly in the public sector. Although the survey shows that overall, organisations are increasing their focus on absence management, there is still more that can be done.

The increased focus on cutting costs whilst maintaining productivity and service levels presents further challenges for organisations. Recent public sector budget cuts highlight absence levels as an area in need of attention from HR and the wider business.

Monitor non-attendance

The first step in effectively managing absence is to monitor the rate of non-attendance. The survey shows that more organisations (82 per cent) are recording their annual absence rate compared to 2009 (70 per cent). Across the sectors, absence levels remain low at 7.7 days per employee, but there remains a marked difference between public (9.6 days) and private sector (6.6 days) absence levels.

A possible explanation for the difference between public and private sector absence could be the nature of job roles in the public sector. There are a high proportion of challenging, public-facing roles such as those in policing, nursing, teaching and social care, where people often face emotionally-charged and stressful situations. Differences in workforce composition could also be a contributory factor to the gap between public and private sector absence levels. Research by the Health and Safety Executive found that public sector organisations tend to have a higher proportion of female and older workers who typically record higher absence levels. In addition, management culture is very different between the sectors, with public sector organisations more commonly adopting best practice in absence management procedures and being less likely than private sector employers to use disciplinary procedures or restrict sick pay in managing absence.

Cost of absence
Despite the increased pressure on organisations to cut costs, fewer than half actually monitor the cost of employee absence. Larger organisations and public sector organisations are more likely to monitor this.

The median annual cost of absence is £600 per employee, but costs vary significantly across organisations. However, the survey shows that the cost of public sector absence per employee (£889) is noticeably higher than in the private sector (£600) and in manufacturing and production (£400).

Part of the increased cost could be accounted for by public sector organisations generally offering more generous occupational sick pay, for longer than compared to private sector organisations. Over 2/3 of public sector employers provide full pay for more than 20 weeks, compared to around 1/3 of manufacturing and production and not-for-profit employers, and just over a fifth of private sector services. In addition, public sector employers are less likely to restrict sick pay as a method of managing absence.

Support & action
It is important for organisations to strike the appropriate balance between providing support to help employees with health problems, stay in, and return to work, and taking firm and consistent action against employees who try to take advantage of an organisation’s Sick Pay Schemes. This action is vital as non-genuine absence clearly reduces an organisation’s productivity.

Disciplinary procedures were rated as one of the most common and effective methods used to manage absence, although less so in the public sector than the private sector. However, if employees are genuinely ill, they should be encouraged to stay at home. People coming into work ill can have negative effects for the organisation as illnesses can be spread to colleagues and when people are ill they are more likely to make costly mistakes.

Causes of absence

The survey shows that the most common cause of short-term absence is minor illness, such as colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches and migraines. The next most prevalent causes are musculoskeletal injuries, back pain and stress. For long-term absence, the most common causes are acute medical conditions (stroke, heart attack, cancer) musculoskeletal injuries, and again stress features highly. The most common causes of stress at work were reported to be workloads, external relationships, organisational change/restructuring and management styles.

An increase in stress at work was also identified, with a third of employers saying that stress-related absence had increased over the previous year, compared with just 15 per cent seeing a decrease. In addition a significant increase in mental health conditions in the workplace over the past 12 months was found. As well as nearly four in ten employers saying that there had been an increase in reported conditions such as anxiety and depression compared with just two in ten employers reporting an increase the year before.

Stress management

The increase in stress and other mental health problems highlighted by the research is perhaps not surprising given the tough economic conditions facing the country. The last year has been a challenging one for both employers and employees as the UK economy has slowly emerged from recession. The CIPD’s Autumn 2010 Employee Outlook survey found that four out of ten employees said they are under excessive pressure either every day or once or twice a week and that one in five staff think it likely they will lose their job. The findings show that people concerned about job security are more likely to say they are under excessive pressure at work.

Joint research by the CIPD and the Health and Safety Executive into the link between line management behaviour and stress at work has highlighted the management competencies which are key to managing stress. These fall into four main categories:
• Managing and communicating existing and future work
• Managing the individual within the team
• Reasoning/managing difficult situations
• Managing emotions and having integrity

The competency framework emphasises that managing stress is not a distinct activity but is an integral part of managing people effectively. Managers also need to be able to spot the early warning signs that might indicate that all is not well with an employee such as: working excessive hours; taking recurrent days off sick with minor illnesses; uncharacteristic emotional behaviour; poor relationships with colleagues; and under-performance.

Efforts to reduce employee absence levels or boost employee engagement will be fatally undermined if line managers are not equipped with these core people management skills.

The key to managing stress and other mental health problems is good people management - particularly on the part of line managers. Line managers can either prevent or mitigate stress or they can cause or exacerbate stress.

For more information:
The CIPD’s 2010 Absence Management Survey report can be accessed by visiting www.cipd.co.uk/2010absencemanagementsurvey

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