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If you are an employer looking to address sick absence levels in your organisation, concerned about attendance management and what you can do to improve it, then I can help.

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Sick Absence - why measure it?

Any serious discussion on sick absence case studies and initiatives often focus on the topic of ‘measurement’- how as an employer will you know if you have a sick absence ‘problem’ or challenge? How will you be able to work out if management of absence has worked or not?, what will ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in the project look like? In short, how can you measure the amount of absence in your organisation and what impact is it and will it have on your business?

These are all critical issues to address if you are to address absence management. I think you have to go back to first principles and ask yourself why is there a need to measure in the first place? There is the old management mantra which goes along the lines of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. That is to say, that if you don’t know how well or badly something is doing, then you can’t improve it. This is still sound stuff today and the first thing you need to understand as a well being  or absence management practioner is how you are going to measure the historical and current level of absence to establish the degree of the problem and how you will manage any project to manage or influence/improve it.

There are numerous ways to measure sick absence but the most popular and certainly the most important in my experience, is a) the amount in days off that employees take and b) the cost to the employer of that absence. Now a) tends to be the easier of the two to establish. Through one HR management IT tool or another you need to work out the total absence taken by people over a reporting year for example and divide that by the number of employees to give an ‘average’ level of absence per employee. If say, you employee 100 people and total absence in the last 12 months was 700 days, then that would work out at each employee on average taking 7 days absence a year. This can then be your benchmark- the 7 days is what people are taking and it is that figure that you need to consider to improve.

But the 7 days per employee is one thing but what does that mean? Is it an acceptable figure or not to you? The second issue is the impact that level of absence has on your business. A practical way of looking at that is the ‘cost’. Normally the cost is looked at in terms of hard money- what is the cost to you of someone being off sick on average 7 times a year? Now this cost will depend very much on your sick pay policy. If you are very generous like the Public Sector, then the first six months of sick absence entitles the employee to full pay. Let’s say that the average cost of employing someone (pay, national insurance and pension contributions) is £20,000, then 7 days absence would cost around £550 per person or £55,000 for all of employees. If you have a turnover of say £1m then the sick pay cost is 5.5% -not insubstantial. But there are other costs too . Whilst you may be paying for someone who is sick, what about the work that needs to be done in their absence? You might be paying overtime for someone to carry out their work or even engage a temporary member of staff. If you do not then there is the cost of lost productivity etc.

So you can already see in this –admittedly simplistic – example that as an employer some simple measurements can alert you to the level of absence in your organisation and the kind of impact it is having on your business, and it allows you to think if this is acceptable and whether you need to address the problem.

How to get 'switched on' staff ...

My time in the Civil Service taught me a number of things. One of them was of the benefits that having a workforce of engaged and committed people can bring to a business, in that such people perform better, they are less likely to leave and they are more likely to promote the organisation with their family and friends. In short, if you want to be successful, then the business needs to get their workforce teams engaged.

But my time in the civil service also taught me how difficult it was to engage senior management themselves so that they not only understand why they should embrace the idea of employee engagement, but convince them to commit to changes that allow it. Resistance and Inertia are very often your permanent companions when trying to motive people. There is the all important question on how to go about engaging your staff-especially at a time when large groups of employees , through severe cutbacks and early release/redundancy programmes, feel disenchanted, dis-empowered and dis-engaged: the opposite of where you need them to be. Now there is no denying that trying to engage people is not straight forward, but there are a variety of proven techniques which if you can adopt (or adapt), can go a long way to allowing you to have that passionate and committed workforce that is an essential pre-requisite of a successful organisation.

I think that there are five main areas that need to be addressed if you are to be successful:

Allow people to be involved in decision making

This is a tough one, especially for those parts of the public sector who are used to just being told what to do by their political masters and in turn to tell their staff what they need to do. Managers not used to consulting (rather than informing) their teams find the concept of involving their teams in changes quite difficult and worrying. But for people to feel that they are a genuine stakeholder in the business they need to be involved when for example changes are being proposed such as reorganisations or downsizing etc. It is the staff who operate the organisations systems and processes and they can very often provide an insight into the most effective way to organise or run a service.

Encourage people to voice their views and opinions

Employees can often feel ‘lost’ in an organisation and that they are just a clog in a mighty wheel, where their views do not count or, even worse, are not sought. Any successful organisation needs to view its employees as partners in the business and feedback on the challenges that you are facing is critical to getting the temperature of the workforce and to understand what changes might be needed. Views can be encouraged and articulated in a variety of ways from online and real forums to regular team briefings where those all important voices can be heard – but the feedback loop must be genuine. It is not a ‘box ticking’ exercise.

Managers to listen to these views

It is one thing to encourage opinions but it is another thing for managers and boards to genuinely listen to those voices. Yes, people want opportunities to express their views but they also want them to be heard with an open mind. What is the point of asking for feedback if you have already decided what you are going to do? Quite often, organisations have already decided what their course of action is going to be and that their discussions with staff are little more than a ‘tick in the box’.For the relationship to be two way, managers need to keep an open mind that their proposal may in fact not be the most effective one- this doesn’t mean that management stops managing, rather it allows them to understand the impact proposals may make before deciding what to do.

People to feel well informed about changes at work

Employees feel committed to their organisations when they feel involved in changes even if they may not agree with them. If you can tell your teams what is going to happen before it happens, then they are more likely to feel that they are important to the business. Nothing is worse for team morale then people not knowing what is going on and how changes at work might affect them. I often found that it is the fear of what changes might mean that concern staff (will I have a job, will more be expected of me, what do I tell my staff? etc) and these need to be addressed. It may be that managers have no control over those changes themselves if it is a political or board level decision handed down to them to enact but by telling people what you know as soon as possible and what it might mean for them creates a level of trust that can allow real goodwill as well as cement engagement.

Saying goodbye to PUS ...

The unexpected news that Ursula Brennan the MOD Permanent Secretary is moving on took quite a few people in Whitehall circles by surprise.

It is certainly the case that Ursula had something of a rough ride being the first Female Permanent Secretary (PUS ) in a department that has the reputation of being quite aggressively masculine (i.e. how many senior military chiefs are female? Answers on a postcard please) and charged with a range of deep and substantive  cuts in that ministry, which had been already been burdened with significant funding issues. In addition, as the most senior civil servant in the MOD she had to deal with the political fall out from the Liam Fox and Adam Werrity affair- that propelled her to some kind of notice.

She is returning to the Ministry of Justice where she was Director General Corporate Performance before she joined the MOD in 2008 initially as the 2nd Permanent Secretary (2nd PUS for short) before being appointed as PUS in 2010.

She has had to preside over huge reductions to both the civilian and military work forces, which were on top of previous head count reductions in a department where employee engagement has been at a low ebb for some time.

However it is reported that she is well regarded by her senior military colleagues and the Defence Secretary (Phillip Hammond) will surely miss her- Tom McKane is going to step into the breach until a permanent replacement can be appointed and continuity and stability is one thing needed at present.

My over-riding feeling is that Mrs Brennan suffered from what you could call the ‘PUS Disease’ in that criticism was made that she, like other PUS’s were out of touch with the feelings of the staff in the department. Now in an organisation of close to 250,000 people, it is always going to be hard, if  not impossible, to understand what the shop floor feeling is, when the MOD is such a diverse outfit – people working there range from MOD Policemen and women, Scientists and Engineers to Administrators- and views can differ greatly from area to area.

But I don’t suppose it is any great secret that in general MOD staff are not a happy bunch- especially the civilians- who very often get the unfair stereotypical criticism of being over staffed and ineffective. Certainly that is not my experience and the department has had to endure significant cuts to its budget and people whilst still maintaining a strategic and critical defence capability. None of that has been easy.

The challenge to the new permanent successor to Ursula Brennan will be how to succesfully engage with a workforce that has become dis-affected over a period of time, with cuts, pay freezes, pension contribution increases and which require very strong leadership- in my view, it is a ministry like none other. It has people with different cultures through the three single services (Army, RAF & RN) and the civilian population also has its own way of working.

It will take a particular kind of person to rise to this kind of the challenge if we are not to let the Armed Forces down.

Absence Management: so why are my employees sick so often?

In my previous blog Does the public sector have a problem with sick absence? I laid out some of the generally accepted ‘knowns’ about employee sick absence i.e. what a succession of data and surveys indicate, and in this article, I am going to put some more meat onto these indicators and  how they may impact on your business if you are aiming to improve the level of employee absence in your organisation.

To recap, surveys and data suggest that on the whole:

  • sick absence is generally higher in the public sector by a good margin (probably around the 25% mark)

Now, this particular issue is a very ‘hot’ one at the moment in the context of the public sector reform that David Cameron is keen to push through as part of his ‘re-inventing Government’ initiative.(good luck with that, Dave).

Although people disagree on the level of additional sick absence that public sector workers take compared to their private sector counterparts, the evidence would seem to show that more government workers take time off. Now, part of the thinking behind why this should be is linked to a range of factors. These include the fact that :

  • absences are higher in organisations that employ larger numbers of people

A stark demonstration of this argument can be found in the 2011 CIPD Absence Management survey where the level of sick absence directly related to the numbers of people employed. For example, where less than 50 people were employed, the average worker was sick 5.6 days a year, for 50-249 staff, it was 6.4 days, 250-999 was 8.2, 1,000-4,999 was 9.2 days, but for those organisations with more than 5,000 employees sick absence was the highest at 9.6 days per person.-now that is a staggering 71% more than people working at organisations employing less than 50.

Now, why should this be? There is an argument that perhaps staff who form part of a small group know that they will be missed if they are away and feel the need to keep well and not take time off, whilst for those who work in very large enterprises, they may feel that they will not be missed and feel ‘able’ to take sick leave. However, there may be a  more basic factor in play here. Smaller companies may not be able to offer generous sick pay entitlement whilst public sector organisations do and that realisation may be a big factor in the incidence of sick absence i.e. if I am sick, I won’t (or will) get paid!

Another reason why the public sector has higher level of absences may be due to:

  • absences are higher amongst women

Now, this is a tricky one. This suggests that there is a gender bias and that women are more prone to sick absence than men. Certainly, the figures suggest that scenario but the reasons behind this phenomenon may be more complex than just being an issue of sex. Previous work in this area sponsored by the Cabinet Office in Tony Blair’s government suggested that this might be due to the fact that most Carers tend to be female and that when they need to take time off to care for someone when they have exhausted their annual leave entitlement, they may take sick leave instead.  What is relevant however is that the public sector employs more women relative to the private sector which would explain why this apparent gender bias impacts on the public sector area. But clearly, more work is needed in this area. In addition:

  • absences are lowest in London and highest in the North of England and Scotland

It is clear that apart from an organisational size and gender bias, there is also a regional differential too. According to the 2011 CIPD survey, the area of the UK where absence levels are the lowest is London with absence running at an average 6.4 days per person. The highest, by comparison, is Scotland with 10.6 days – a difference of some 65%. Now, this is likely to echo the wellness and life expectancy of regions as a whole, and figures again indicate that people on average are healthier and live longer in the capital whilst in Scotland people have poorer health and reduced life expectancy.

The public sector suffers in this respect because much of its government departments and authorities are located outside of London and its main conurbations have high levels of reported sick absence (Midlands – 10 days, Yorkshire 9 days & North East England – 9 days). What is behind these regional differences is believed to be linked to how affluent (or poor) people are and what people’s status at work is. People who are financially better off and who have control over their work environment tend to report better levels of health (e.g. someone may be able to afford gym membership, to have private medical insurance, to be able to take regular holidays etc) compared to those whose salaries are more modest and who are lower down their organisation’s structure. This, for example, explains why in the Civil Service, members of the Senior Civil Service (the Mandarins to you and more) take little sick leave, whilst the majority of the absence is taken by more junior administrative staff. The latter tend to have minimal control at their workplace (they have no one to delegate to and are usually told what to do) and are paid minimal salaries and again would indicate that they are more likely to be absent from work through sickness.

This is a fascinating area and whilst root causes of the level of absences are still subject to a lot of opinion and discussion, these factors can help you predict where absences may occur and whereas an employer you may need to concentrate your efforts