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Olympic challenge to absence management

According to the Institute for Employment Studies, unplanned absence costs UK businesses up to 16 percent of payroll, and it is widely regarded as the single greatest cause of lost productivity. Surveys have suggested that, for example, during Football World Cups, there is a greater tendency for employees to phone in sick thereby increasing short term absence rates. Given that the range of Olympic events on offer appeals to a far wider spectrum of people than just football supporters, the Olympics has the potential to be an even bigger headache for employers and, it’s therefore important that managers start planning their approach to unplanned absence now. An effective sickness absence plan, will have a measurable impact on both business performance and the bottom line whilst also improving employee commitment,levels of attendance and labour turnover.

The answer is to prepare. As many of the Games’ events take place during the day, employers need to consider any logistical and organisational issues they may face such as staff attending events or volunteering at the Olympics. In both these cases, employees are likely to have planned their leave in advance allowing employers to plan for their absence. Thinking about and planning now for planned absences in July will make managing people and their workloads easier in the run up to and during the Games. While employers are certainly under no legal obligation to allow time off for non-emergency situations such as attending sporting events, they may benefit by providing a flexible approach to reasonable employee requests to support the Games. This attitude is likely to boost morale and employee engagement but remember, arrangements must be fair to all and employers cannot discriminate by only offering this benefit to staff who are interested in sport. You must develop an approach that suits your organisation, based around your work culture, ethics and absence policies.

As we get closer to the Games, it is important that discussions take place about how absence around this time will be managed. There are a number of actions that can be taken now to ease people management and workloads around the games. Steps to consider are: Arranging for early discussions with Unions or staff representatives to draw up an agreed approach well before July and to communicate it clearly and effectively with employees. Keep any temporary ‘Olympic working’ arrangements time bound and simple to avoid misinterpretation. Encourage employees to formally book annual leave, perhaps on a first come, first served basis for simplicity, and make it clear that taking unauthorised time off without good reason could result in disciplinary procedures being invoked. If you don’t already offer it, you may like to consider the option of providing unpaid leave but again, in the time period specified.

Ensure that any unplanned staff absence is closely monitored and recorded. Firstly, ask workers to notify their manager of the cause of their absence at the earliest opportunity. To do this effectively, employers have to have consistent policies and protocols in place for reporting unplanned absence. Encourage flexible working or shift swapping as a short term measure, even if you do not currently have any formal arrangements in place. Subject to available IT, allow staff to work from home or at other remote locations to avoid travel disruption during the Olympics. Consider screening the most popular events on an office screen or allowing staff to watch via their PC provided lost time is made up.

Employees will want to know early on what, if any, arrangements are being put in place to support them around enjoying their preferred sports during the Games. Once you have agreed your approach to employees, ensure that they are made aware of them well in advance. Communicating your decision to screen some of the more popular sports or allowing people to enjoy the games at their desks will demonstrate a flexible approach and will boost morale. In addition to planned absences, at the other end of the spectrum, there is a predicted rise in short term absence caused by workers seeking time off and taking ‘sickies’ to enable them to watch the Games from home. As well as the Games in the summer, there are also a number of other national events that could trigger planned or unplanned absences during the year including Euro 2012 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. So, it makes sense now to review and agree your absence policy not just around the Games but over the next 12 to 18 months.

Communicating your absence policy well before the Games to all line managers will help ensure that it is followed consistently across your business which is imperative. There may be different management styles but having key guidelines and protocols in place will help identify weak areas of the business and help to address any issues. Looking more generally at your absence policy, if looking to improve overall commitment and therefore performance, then there are steps that can be taken. The key to successful management, therefore, is to ensure absence data is monitored at monthly departmental management team meetings, where employees with concerning patterns of absence are reviewed.

Consequently, employees who repeatedly have high levels of sickness absence should be monitored to ensure that appropriate action is being taken by their line managers, for example, warning/disciplining employees for poor attendance and/or referral to Occupational Health or, if available, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Those employees with long term absence issues are reviewed as a matter of course. Information should be reviewed to identify other employees whose patterns of absence are a cause for concern. Senior managers should also check that line managers are providing their team members with relevant support and being helped back to work, where appropriate.

Of course, amid all these thoughts on a possible epidemic of short-term absenteeism, it’s probably a good idea to bear some fundamentals in mind. First of all, most employees want to do a good job, be ‘normal’ and fit in, and most absence is genuine. However, when short-term absence is higher than the norm, or indeed higher than desired, and it can be argued that taking perhaps one or two days sickness a year can serve as a useful safety valve, then the reasons need to be understood. Managers, therefore, need to be able to distinguish between two different types of short-term absence. Firstly, there is occasional short-term absence, which may be due to coughs, colds and stomach upset etc. Nothing can or should be done if employees have a short term absence on an infrequent basis. It certainly can potentially alienate the genuine employees when it is suggested that their absence is inappropriate or that it could be shortened in some way.

On the other hand, there is the frequent short-term absences such as coughs, colds, stomach upsets and so on, which may require a management cautionary process, when problems arise on a frequent basis (three or more times in 12 months). However, HR managers need to ensure that line managers receive adequate training as to how to manage employees with such an issue. As a country, we have lots to celebrate in 2012 and the London Olympic Games is likely to be the best sporting event we will see in this country in our lifetimes. So let’s enjoy what is set to be an incredible sporting year for the UK. At the same time, businesses need not suffer from lower productivity as a result of higher rates of employee absence.

Companies that have implemented an effective sickness absence strategy in advance will feel the real benefit, especially in the long term, through stable or improved business performance, retention of valued staff and better workplace relations. Maintaining a management approach based on believing employees are genuinely sick, rather than simply malingerers, will help build valuable engagement and loyalty.

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Created on: 19-Apr-12 10:03
By: David Prosser - AXA PPP Healthcare
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