The incentive route to reducing absence


Over a quarter of employers in Europe are using incentives to encourage staff to take fewer days off sick, while half have also adopted health promotion initiatives in a further attempt to cut down on sickness absence.

Some 27 per cent of employers are using inducements such as vouchers and bonuses in a bid to reduce their absenteeism levels, according to a new European survey of 380 organisations by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

Some of the more high-profile examples of such a policy includes the British Royal Mail, where absenteeism was so bad in 2004 that 6.5 per cent of its total workforce of 170,000 were absent at any one time – that's some 10,000 people.

However after the introduction of a scheme under which workers who did not take a single day off sick up to the end of January 2005 could win holiday vouchers worth £2,000 and even a new car, attendance levels rose by 11 per cent.

But opinion on the appropriateness of these incentives is mixed. Some employers – particularly those in the UK – are concerned that they may simply encourage those who are genuinely ill to come to work when they would be better off at home.

"Some employers believe that by offering incentives to reduce absence, they are encouraging employees who are genuinely sick to attend work," said Mercer's Steve Clements.

"Many also struggle with the notion of rewarding employees for doing what is expected of them - that is, to work when they are fit to do so."

Another strategy – adopted by half of employers – involves taking steps to proactively reduce absence through initiatives such as health screening, subsidised gym membership and support for employees who are trying to quit smoking.

Meanwhile, employers' opinions also vary on how much employee absence is due to genuine ill health and how much is bogus.

The survey found that over a quarter of respondents believe less than 20 per cent of their staff absence is genuinely sickness-related. But a similar proportion thinks that more than 80 per cent of days off are due to real ailments or illness.

Earlier this week, a survey by the largest employers' organisation in Britain, the CBI, suggested that employers believe around one in eight of workplace absences to be bogus and normally involve feigning illness at the beginning or end of a week.

Steve Clements said that these discrepancies in the views of employers highlight the fact that many still do not collect reliable data on the causes of absence.

"While there are clearly legitimate reasons for taking days off other than ill health, the data suggests some employers are questioning how much employee absence is due to genuine causes.

"For most organisations, frequent short-term rather than long-term employee absence is the main cause of lost time. Better causal data will help companies target absence-related initiatives more effectively, and allow managers to address the issue more robustly," he added.

But as the survey also revealed, many employers are concerned that anti-discrimination legislation – such as age, sex and disability discrimination – is preventing them from managing absence in a timely way.

More than one in five survey respondents (22 per cent) felt that red tape was making matters worse for them, with concern at its highest in Eastern Europe, Germany and France.

"When evaluating absence cases, many employers feel they have to check and double check where they stand from a legal perspective before they take any action to get employees back to work," Steve Clements said.