Management Briefing No 143 July 2006
Control or Management?
UNISON Scotland recognises that employers want
to manage absence and that in the public sector the issue has
been highlighted in the Scottish Executives Efficient Government
Initiative. However, UNISON Scotland is concerned that the level
of misuse is often exaggerated and that many sickness absence
policies impose a rigid, punitive approach rather than treating
staff as a valued resource. The purpose of this briefing is
to assist branches and members on Absence Management policies.
What is Absence Management?
What most members would call 'sickness absence
policies' are known by a number of other names including 'absence
control policies'. Absence Management is the realistic and caring
handling of staff attendance. The use of the term 'absence management'
represents a shift from the negative term absence control with
its more punitive associations. Absence management is about
monitoring absenteeism, establishing the real causes of non-attendance
and addressing these with a raft of strategies. Absence management
includes, keeping statistics, stress counselling, return to
work interviews and training for line managers.
Types of Absence
The latest research from the Charted Institute
of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has revealed that on average
sickness absence costs employers £598 per employee every year.
In terms of working time, employee absence costs eight working
days for every member off staff per year. There are many reasons
why people take time off work. These are more commonly categorised
Short time sickness absence (un-certificated,
self-certificated or covered by a doctor's certificate).
Long-term sickness absence.
Unauthorised absence or persistent lateness.
Other authorised absences eg annual leave;
maternity, paternity, adoption, or parental leave; time
off for public or trade union duties, or to care for dependents;
compassionate leave; educational leave.
What absence management policies should contain
The first step for organisations managing absence
effectively is to have a clear policy in place that supports
the organisations objectives and culture. The Employments Rights
Act 1996 requires employers to provide staff with information
on terms and conditions relating to incapacity for work due
to sickness or injury, including any provision for sick pay.
Effective attendance management policies must clearly state
employee's rights and obligations when taking time off work
due to sickness. The policies:
Must provide details of contractual sick
pay terms and its relationship with statutory sick pay.
Should outline the process employees must
follow if taking time off sick – covering when and whom
employees should notify if they are not able to attend work.
Should include when (after how many days)
employees need a self-certificate form.
Should set out when they require a medical
certificate (sick-note) from their doctor to certify their
May mention that the organisation reserves
the right to require employees to attend an examination
by the organisations doctor and with the employee's consent
to request a report from the employee's doctor. It is important
to note that The Access to Medical Records Act 1988 allows
employers to ask for medical reports, but not medical records,
provided that they have the employees consent.
May include provisions for return to work
interviews as these claim to be the most effective employer
intervention to manage short-term absence.
Why measure absence?
A key element of managing absence effectively
is accurate measurement and monitoring. Only through measurement
can an organisation assess if it has a problem with absence,
its extent and the best way to handle it. Employers and unions
can use data to identify particular patterns of absence within
organisations, and underlying causes of absence, for example,
the management style of a particular manager, an increase in
workloads on other health and safety problems.
Ways of measuring absence
There are a number of measures that can be used
to assess absence, each of which gives information about different
aspects of absence.
Measuring the overall rate
In calculating overall absence rates, many organisations
use the following standard formula to show the amount of time
lost (expressed as a percentage of working time):
Number of days/shifts lost to absence x
Total number of working days/shifts
This percentage of working time lost can also
be expressed as an equivalent number of working days lost per
employee and one or other of these is commonly used as the headline
figure. However, while it is the usual overall point of reference,
measuring working time lost leaves some questions unanswered.
For example, is the absence rate a reflection of a few employees
on long-term sickness absence or are a substantial number of
employees frequently absent for relatively short spells?
A simple calculation, often called the frequency
rate, may provide further information on which to base policies
on absence. This rate shows the average number of absences per
employee (expressed as a percentage) but does not take into
account the length of each spell.
No of spells of absence in the period x
No of employees
Another related calculation can reveal the proportion
of employees absent during a given period:
Number of employees having one or more spells
of absence x 100
Number of employees
Measuring disruption – the Bradford factor
The Bradford Factor identifies short-term absence
for individuals, by measuring the number of spells of absence,
and is therefore a measure of the disruption caused by this
type of absence. It is calculated by the following formula
S x S x D
S = number of spells of absence in 52 weeks taken
by an individual
D = number of days of absence in 52 weeks taken
by an individual
What to do about absence
Absence management figures can be investigated
to determine the scale and nature of the problem. This should
establish whether or not there is a general absence problem
and which of the main categories of absence are involved:
- Long-term sickness
- Short-term certificated or un-certificated absence
- Unauthorised absence and lateness
Other absence issues
Employers must be careful not to the breach the
Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) when they collect, use and store
information about their employees' absence. Details of an employee's
health, either physical or mental, are categorised as 'sensitive
personal data' under the DPA. The DPA also requires openness.
Staff should know what information about their health is being
collected and why. Obtaining information about worker's health
covertly is unlikely ever to be justified.
The management of employees who become disabled
as a result of sickness may mean employers have to make 'reasonable
adjustments' as dictated by the Disability Discrimination Act
1995 (DDA) before they can return to their job. The types of
adjustments that employers might be required to consider include:
- Making physical adjustments to the workplace.
- Allocating some of the disabled person's duties to another
- Transferring the disable person to another vacant post,
with or without reasonable adjustments being made.
- Altering the disabled person's working hours through,
for example, part-time working, job sharing or other flexible
- Providing special equipment to assist the disabled person
to perform his or her tasks, and giving training in the
use of the equipment.
The DDA currently defines a mental impairment
as 'resulting from or consisting of a mental illness only if
the illness is a clinically well-recognised illness'. This changed
from December 2005.
Applicants only have to provide evidence of the
effect the condition is having on them and their ability to
carry out normal-day-to-day activities. This could mean that
conditions such as stress will be covered under the DDA.
Absence and pregnancy
Employers should record pregnancy-related sickness
absence separately from other sickness absences. Employers have
no obligation to provide different sick-pay provision for women
who take time off work for reasons related to their pregnancy.
However an employer who includes absence related to pregnancy
in any assessment of a worker's sickness record, for example
in a redundancy exercise or for disciplinary reasons, will be
vulnerable to a claim for sex discrimination. An employee who
is absent due to a pregnancy-related illness during the four
weeks period prior to her date can be required to start her
maternity leave, and will be entitled to maternity pay and not
Some organisations make additional payments on
top of normal pay in order to encourage good attendance but
opinions vary over whether this is effective. Advocates of attendance
payments argue that they reward those who, by turning up for
work, frequently carry an additional load caused by those who
stay away. It is also claimed that such payments, while not
necessary affecting persistent absentees, raise the general
level of attendance. UNISON believes that employers should not
offer financial incentives in an effort to secure lower absence
rates. The use of financial incentives is problematic and it
raises the following questions:
- What impact do they have on employees who are ill, and
on their colleagues?
- What about the risk of industrial injuries?
- What is the impact of financial incentives to lower absence
on service quality?
- What is the evidence that such incentives are effective
in the long term?
The Scottish Executive has launched the Efficient
Government Initiative that is designed to deliver public service
savings of £500m by 2007-8 and £1 billion by 2009-10. This initiative
covers all public services in Scotland. It will therefore be
a feature of the performance review of all public bodies over
the coming years. The focus for savings includes Absence Management,
where all organisations are expected to have strategies for
managing absence and support for staff to return to work. The
Policy and Information team has already produced three briefings
on Efficient Government (Briefing Numbers: 86, 108 & 136).
Health promotion and a healthier workforce
A growing number of employers are recognising
the value of fostering a healthier workforce and are encouraging
their employees to live healthier lives. Organisations should
have comprehensive health promotion programmes covering: healthy
diet; workplace support to help staff avoid health hazards such
as smoking, drugs and alcohol; health education and access to
screening and services for general health issues, women's health,
cancers, stress, eye health, nutrition, dental health, hearing,
Action for branches
UNISON representatives have a vital role to play
and ensure that procedures should specify the right to be accompanied
and/ or represented by a union representative in all discussions
with management about absence. In practice such sessions can
lead to informal or formal disciplinary measures being applied
and the involvement of the union should ensure that this does
not occur. Where the illness is of a sensitive nature there
should be a provision for the employee to be represented by
someone other than their union representative, i.e. a union
rep of the same gender, disabled members representative, branch
welfare officer etc. Branches should also review existing absence
management policies and forward to the P & I Team to be
stored within the BIS system.
For further information
Control or Management? Guidelines on sickness
absence policies for UNISON branches, stewards and safety representatives.
Absence agreements in the UK Public Sector: A
bitter pill to swallow? Preliminary results from a survey of
Attendance Management by Steven Bevan
IDS HR Study 810
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