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Time to evolve absence management practices

Julie Lock, HCM Commercial Director - Advanced
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There was a time when the option to work from home was regarded as a luxury rather than a necessity. By the end of 2020, nearly three-quarters (73%) of the world’s workforce were working remotely, with more than a third expecting remote working to stay permanently. Businesses leaders have also altered their trajectory, with two-thirds already making plans to dramatically downsize their office space in order to accommodate hybrid working.

The pace of digital change that businesses have had to undergo has been rapid to say the least. In the face of such an immediate crisis, it’s completely understandable that a company would prioritise productivity and collaboration above all else, at least in the short term. But as the so-called ‘new normal’ begins to take shape, it’s becoming ever clearer that businesses need to start thinking much further ahead. It’s one thing to get the tools in place to enable teams to work remotely, but what about their well-being? What about check-ins, performance reviews, assessments, and all of the other things that typically come hand-in-hand with office-based work? Businesses may have undergone some intense changes in the past two years, but so have employees. With such a strong focus on keeping business ticking over, there’s a real risk that employee support structures have taken a backseat when it comes to innovating for the new hybrid workspace and nowhere is that more clear than in the case of absence management.

The rising problem of presenteeism
Every HR director understands the curse of presenteeism. It’s a deep-seated cultural issue that plagues businesses, where employees feel pressured into going to work when they know they should be resting or taking time off. It often occurs in highly competitive work environments or, as we’re now discovering, during times of crisis when the words ‘furlough’ and ‘redundancy’ are common parlance. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), absence rates due to sickness in 2020 were at their lowest levels since records began in 1995, falling from 3.1% down to 1.8%. This startling statistic can be explained, at least in part, by the furlough scheme and fewer people catching colds and other bugs as they worked from home. But these factors alone can’t realistically account for the near 50% drop in absences throughout the year.

What’s more likely is that the talk of furloughs and redundancies, combined with the rapid switch to remote working, has made many employees fear for their jobs or feel they need to ‘overperform’ in order to prove their worth. Being physically separated from colleagues and team leaders throws up many unique challenges, many of them cultural in nature. Employees that might once have taken comfort and confidence from their peers are now finding themselves increasingly isolated, communicating instead through video calls and instant messaging apps. The support structures that existed around them in the office, such as one-on-ones, performance reviews, and simply being able to share their feelings read the feelings of others, have all waned. Is it any wonder presenteeism is on the rise?

The case for modernising absence management
Throughout the pandemic, a staggering 40% of the global workforce admitted to working while they were sick because they didn’t think their illness was enough to warrant time off. This is presenteeism at its worst, and it can have a devastating impact on business overall. Not only does working through burnout and illness take a toll on the individual, it can massively hamper an organisation’s overall productivity levels. Businesses need staff to be well-rested, happy and motivated, not pushing through illness and carrying heavy mental health burdens from day-to-day. In terms of lost productivity, a 2020 report put the cost of poor mental health among employees at between £33 billion and £42 billion per year for businesses. In other words, businesses are haemorrhaging millions by not putting the mental and physical well-being of their employees first. These issues predate the pandemic, but if looking after employee health and well-being before was difficult, now it’s even harder. This is where good cultural leadership and absence management capabilities fit for the world of hybrid work come into play.

Good absence management isn’t just about knowing when employees aren’t at work. It’s about creating an environment in which employees feel they can take time off if they need to, and giving them a proper channel through which to arrange that time off with minimal disruption to your business workflows. It’s about providing support and anticipating needs, so individuals feel well supported and the business is staffed by happy and productive employees. In other words, it’s about being proactive.

In order to achieve this, HR teams need to be free from admin and bureaucracy. If your HR executives spend all of their time trying to organise remote working, log hours, submit timesheets, run payroll etc. they’re not going to have the capacity to check in with employees, spot behavioural patterns and anticipate their needs. If HR teams could automate these smaller tasks, perhaps giving staff themselves the ability to record their current working status and book their own time off, they’d be free to focus more on the human side of human resources. The pandemic may have been the catalyst, but technology will be the engine to drive the cultural change we sorely need.

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