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
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
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
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 www.cipd.co.uk