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Absence Management Briefing No 143 July 2006
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Absence 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 as:

  • 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 absence
  • 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 100

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?

Measuring frequency

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 100

No of employees

Measuring incidence

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

Data Protection

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.

Disability Discrimination

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 person.
  • 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 working arrangements.
  • 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 sick pay.

Financial incentives

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?


Efficient Government

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, chiropody etc.

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 UNISON representatives.


Attendance Management by Steven Bevan


Absence Management


IDS HR Study 810






Scottish Executive | Scottish Parliament | Briefings Home



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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 UNISON representatives.


Attendance Management by Steven Bevan


Absence Management


IDS HR Study 810





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Dave Watson

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