Throwing a sickie or managing absenteeism?

May 18 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

How tempting is it to phone your boss to say you are too ill to come in to work? If you were genuinely sick, how much worse would you feel if you were then told you that you wouldn’t be paid for some of the time you need to take off?

That's the question posed by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) as it issues fresh guidance to help employers manage workplace absenteeism.

It comes as supermarket giant Tesco pilots a new initiative whereby employees do not receive sick-pay for the first three days of absence in an attempt to encourage workers to be present at work. The scheme has received the tentative backing of shop-workers' union USDAW as well as the think-tank the Work Foundation.

According to the CBI, the average number of days absence per employee each year is 7.1 and the cost to UK employers is £11.6 billion – or £476 per head.

But will the removal of ‘sick pay’ reduce this financial burden, or will it create a corporate headache, with symptoms such as low staff morale and high employee turnover?

“In today’s working environment, employers are continually looking for ways to stay ‘lean and mean’, but effective. By extension, organisations would do well to ensure that genuinely ill staff are not penalised and sick people are not encouraged to work when they are not fully fit.

"Employers should be able to trust their staff when they phone in, unwell, and positive approaches to managing absenteeism are more likely to reduce its occurrence,” says Christine Hayhurst, director of professional affairs at the Chartered Management Institute.

The CMI suggests that when developing absence policies, organisations should:

  • Know the legal framework. Don’t penalise individuals immediately, but explore the reasons for persistent absence and provide help if necessary;
  • Define acceptable levels of absence. Don’t have a culture where absence is accepted without explanation, but do outline what ‘acceptable’ absence is within your organisation.
  • Encourage breaks. Don’t allow your organisation to become a ‘sweat shop’ and ensure that employees take time for lunch and don’t work late when they don’t have to.
  • Motivate staff. Think about the way staff are managed and determine whether policies such as flexible working will help with the occasional need for a day off. Gain buy-in from staff for the benefits on offer.
  • Monitor absence. If staff know that absence data are being collated they are unlikely to take liberties.

Hayhurst adds: “It’s rarely possible to know in advance that someone will be sick, so the important thing is for managers to show some flexibility.

"We recognise that all individuals are paid to do a job, but good management is about identifying reasons for absence and developing a solution. It is not about penalising people who are genuinely ill.”