Absence management is the attempt to reduce the amount of time people take off due to sickness or injury. We call this "absenteeism".

Absence management can be formal or informal.

Formally, you're looking at:

  • Policies & procedures
  • Rules and regulations

This could include things like requiring doctors’ note for 5 days or more sick leave.

Informally, we’re talking about your company culture:

  • How do management talk about absence?
  • Is being off sick is seen as something to be punished or looked at with compassion?

It’s an important topic, and there's a balance to strike between running your business and being a decent employer.

Why is absence management important?

Firstly, it’s important because people missing work causes a loss in productivity.

There's a financial cost you can attach to someone missing work for a day;

  • What is their salary?
  • What do they generate in revenue?
  • What does it cost to get someone else to do their work?

And you've got the general disruption to consider.

  • Who picks up their work?
  • Can we serve all our customers?
  • Can we maintain quality?
  • Do projects get pushed back?

Interestingly, absence rates in the UK have gone down by 50% since 1993. Sounds good, but maybe not... as the ONS suggests:  

Rates (of absence) in the private sector could be lower as workers are less likely to be paid for a spell of sickness. There may also be an increase in presenteeism, where people go to work even though they are ill.
Minimalist white table
Photo by Bench Accounting / Unsplash

Building an absence management policy  

When we talk about Absence Management we generally refer to unplanned absence. Think - illness, health issues, or circumstances like bereavement and childcare. (It doesn’t cover planned absence, like annual leave or parental leave).

Your policy will be a simple document explaining how people should report their absences and how you deal with them being absent.

Not got an Absence Policy?

Fear not, we've written a Staff Absence Policy template. It's yours to copy or download, no strings attached.

The bradford factor

One common sickness absence management tool is the Bradford Factor. A mathematical formula that counts someone’s sick days along with the amount of times they have to call in. A higher score might be the start of disciplinary action.

It's a punitive tool, crude and doesn’t account for the real-life reasons for absence.

Sarah O'Connor from the FT called it: (this link might be paywalled sorry)

A simple mathematical formula with mysterious origins and dangerous consequences.

Really, don't go there.

Our guide to Bradford Factor Alternatives goes into more detail, and suggests a more compassionate approach to absence. The carrot rather than the stick.

Photo by Louis Hansel / Unsplash

Preventative absence management

Your workplace policies, organisation culture, and attitude towards wellbeing, all play a part in absence management.

Make no mistake, happy, motivated, well-rested people won’t be off sick as much. The best way to achieve this is by giving proper planned leave through the year.

The importance of rest can’t be understated.  Not just for the health of your employees but also their productivity. That means proper annual leave allowances, encouraged to be used evenly throughout the year.

(See our write-up on annual leave policies that do it properly  - and why giving the smallest amount of leave just won’t cut it anymore.)

You’ve also got the option of other leave types, like:

  • Unsick days (preventative healthcare like therapy or check-ups )
  • Duvet days (short-term single day absences to stay at home and chill), and
  • Life leave (for important life events that don’t fit into other categories)

Another example is if your parental leave policy doesn’t allow or encourage fathers to take more than a few days' leave for the birth of their child.

What's the consequences of that?

  • Is it contributing to an unbalanced home life?
  • Is Dad getting enough time to bond with their child during those early stages of development?
  • Does it create resentment towards you as an employer?
  • Does it create stress?

Finally, having attractive and fair absence policies can work as positive PR. The press loves a story, and if you’re a trailblazer with progressive policies, it's something y9ou can sing and dance about.

Managing absence the kinder way

The sensible way to deal with absence is to just be a decent employer to work for.  

It might seem easier said than done, but you don’t need to introduce sweeping changes to make things a little better.

Start by defaulting to 'yes' when people need time off, show a touch more flexability.

After that comes policy changes. Minor changes to existing policies that relax the rules a touch, start small.

If you’re unsure of how it’ll work out, be honest and say that, open up to feedback:

“We're running a 6 month trial. Looking forward to seeing how it affects things. Let us know what you think?”

Take a healthy, open attitude towards taking time off and people won't bunk off work the same. You’re onto a winner!