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Donkin on Work - Productivity

August 2004 - Sick notes and absence monitoring

Absenteeism is a costly issue for business. The pay dispute at British Airways, where management succeeded last week in linking bonus payments to absence rates, has highlighted the frustration it can create among employers.

Sick leave among British Airways employees has been running at 17 days a year on average, nearly two working weeks higher for every employee than the national average for private sector companies. As industrial action was threatened, absence rates spiralled among disgruntled employees while talks continued between union and management.

At least companies knew where they were when workers went on strike collectively. Today dissent might be registered privately in the guise of a sick note. You can take your pick from the numerous surveys and research reports attempting to quantify the annual loss to business caused by sick leave.

Within these figures there is compelling evidence, as at BA, that some of this leave has nothing to do with sickness. Companies can measure the way absence rates go up around popular sporting events and rates can be compared between employment sectors.

Recent research on employee absence carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development*, based on analysis of 1,110 survey replies covering workplaces employing 2.9m people, found an average sickness absence of just over nine days a year. Average public sector absences of 10.7 days a year are significantly higher than the 7.8 days average in the private sector.

These figures mask a range of behaviour. There are dedicated employees who will get to work, come what may, even when they are running a fever. It is a point of honour to make it in. There are others who will retreat to their beds with a hot toddy at the first sign of a sniffle. Such behaviour has much to do with attitudes and upbringing.

If we are left to decide for ourselves whether we are too ill to work, where can we draw the line? It helps if we have others - doctors, partners or bosses - who will make the decision for us. What a relief it can be if a colleague says: "You shouldn't be at work, go home and come back when you're feeling better."

Beyond these differences in attitudes there are differences in circumstances. It is easier to be absent from some jobs than others. If you are doing a job for which there is plenty of cover, you can dip out of work more easily than you can if you are a vital part of a daily team, such as an anaesthetist.

The CIPD research revealed a variation in cynicism among employers about sickness absence. A third of those questioned believed that more than a fifth of sickness absence was not genuine. Another third judged the proportion of fake reports to be between 6 per cent and 10 per cent. But virtually all employers accept that sickness absence is fabricated in some cases. Such cynicism would appear to be justified, since many people will freely admit in an anonymous poll or questionnaire that they do take time off occasionally for no other reason than they do not feel like going to work.

Quantifying losses is difficult. If the daily production of widgets goes down because people are absent from a production line, that can be costed. Staffing levels can be maintained to cover for such absences but that too is a cost and so is the use of temporary cover. Long queues building up at the supermarket checkout because of unmanned tills might not affect sales on a single day but, if the problem persists, it will almost certainly lead to a loss of customers. BA reckons that absenteeism is costing it Pounds 70m a year.

Employers are responding to such losses in different ways. The Royal Mail has introduced a scheme that allows those with no sickness absences for six months to be eligible for a prize draw offering holidays and new cars to the winners. But some human resources experts have cautioned against such incentives.

Ben Thornton, Director of HR Solutions at Aon Consulting says: "We can see the appeal of creating incentives for employees to attend work. But our experience points to this being a short-term solution, as it tackles the symptom, not the cause." Long term, he says, the answer is about good management and motivation of employees.

But what constitutes good management? Some of the supermarket chains have withdrawn sick pay from the first three days of a sickness absence. The government is also now looking at possible deterrents to sickness leave in the public sector. A few companies have introduced US-style "duvet days" or "lifestyle days" - an annual bank of short-notice leave days to allow for funerals or attendance at school sports days, or, in the case of duvet days, those times we simply do not feel like working.

The "duvet day" is an institutional answer to an age-old problem. In the early days of manufacturing when factory owners needed to persuade an unwilling workforce to attend work, it was common for employees to refer to St Monday, in recognition of the saints' days, or holy days, that introduced the concept of holidays.

Outside the US, many of us have come to expect longer holidays - in some cases we may be willing to work shorter hours for a commensurate lowering of income.

We should not feel guilty for seeking such reductions. Indeed, it may be time for employers to take a deeper look at their work demands. If a sector of employment has particularly high absence rates, what are the underlying causes? Is it any coincidence that employee unrest at BA has increased after a restructuring that has cut 13,000 jobs in the past three years? The constant desire to get more out of people can increase stress levels if it places unrealistic expectations on an already demoralised workforce.

Most attempts to manage absence by demanding sick notes, interviewing staff when they return or introducing work-based medical checks, imply a lack of trust. However justified this may be, it does not get down to tackling the underlying causes of absence. Genuine health-related absences can be investigated more easily. The causes can be identified by compiling sickness data and by the use of workplace surveys.

A more intractable problem is the kind of absence created by indifference to the job. The CIPD statistics show that the average annual days lost per employee among smaller organisations - those with fewer than 100 employees - is six days: far lower than the 10.3 days lost among employers with more than 2,000 people.

A job needs a sense of identity and belonging. Indifference works both ways. If our absence is hardly missed, it is easier to conclude that the employer believes the same of our contribution. In that case the job and the worker can soon begin to feel worthless, possibly because this reflects reality.

How times have changed. In my father's youth, people queued for work. Now we see employers offering incentives to staff simply for turning up.

*Employee Absence 2004, A survey of Management Policy and Practice

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