What is absence management?

Absence management is the attempt to reduce and prevent employee absenteeism.

Absenteeism is when staff stay home when they should be at work - and there are plenty of reasons they might do so.

Absence management can be formal or informal. Formally, you might do it through policies, procedures, rules and regulations. This could include things like requiring employees to provide a doctors’ note for 5 days or more of sick leave.

Informally, we’re talking about company culture - like the way bosses talk about absence, or whether being off sick is seen as something to be punished or addressed compassionately.

It’s a really important topic for businesses of all sizes, and it’s essential to get it right.

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; that’s something you’ll have to calculate based on what their salary is, what their deliverables are, and what it costs to get someone else to do their work instead.

The other reason is that when one person stays home and someone else has to pick up their work, things get disrupted. This results in overworked employees, and an inability to serve customers to their usual high standards. It can mean projects get pushed back, and negative feelings are stirred up amongst those having to do that extra work.

Interestingly, absence rates in the UK have decreased by almost 50% since 1993. But this isn’t an entirely good thing though, as the ONS suggests:  

"Rates may have decreased as healthy life expectancy has improved over time. Rates 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  

Absence Management generally refers to unplanned absence, which is usually caused by illness, health issues (physical or mental) or other circumstances like bereavement and childcare. (It doesn’t cover planned absence, like annual leave or parental leave).

Your policy will be a simple document outlining how you deal with people being absent.

For example, one common sickness absence management tool is the Bradford Factor, which is a way of counting someone’s sick days along with the amount of times they have to call in. A higher score in this calculation would usually prompt you to start disciplinary proceedings, and it’s commonly used in businesses around the country. We think it’s rubbish though, and doesn’t account for many real-life reasons for absence.

Our guide to Bradford Factor Alternatives goes into more details, and provides a more compassionate approach to absence.

Don’t fancy writing a brand new absence policy yourself? We’ve got you covered with our very own absence policy templates. They’re dead simple, only a few pages long. You can download them in multiple formats and customise to your business needs.

While we do recommend keeping things human and friendly, we also think it’s important to have these things documented. This’ll help stop any confusion or conflict if people think they’re being treated unfairly.

It’s fine if your rules are a bit untraditional - but everyone needs to play by the same rules to keep things fair.

Photo by Louis Hansel / Unsplash

Preventative absence management

Your other workplace policies, and your overall attitude towards staff wellbeing, will also play a part in absence management.

Simply put, well-rested healthy employees just 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 minimum 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 when their kid's born, it’s likely to foster an unbalanced home life, where the dad doesn’t bond with the kid as much during their crucial early development. So equal, generous leave for both parents creates happier, healthier families, lowering the chance of stress leave or childcare emergencies in future.

Finally, having attractive and fair absence policies can work as positive PR for your company. The press loves a story, and if you’re a trailblazer in implementing progressive policies, it’ll be a bonus in the eyes of prospective customers and potential new talent.

Managing absence the kinder way

So one of the most sensible ways to deal with absence is to just be a decent company to work for.  

It might seem easier said than done, but you don’t need to introduce sweeping changes into your organisation to make it a bit better. It might start with just saying hello to someone you don’t normally talk to.

After that comes the policy changes. These can be conceived and implemented within a week at most. And if you’re doing anything new, unsure of how it’ll work out, be honest and say that: “This is a 6 month trial, and we’re looking forward to seeing how this change impacts us all. Let us know what you think.”

Cultivating a healthy, open attitude towards taking time off means that employees will be less likely to bunk off work, and more likely to respect their colleagues enough to turn up whenever they're fit.

Pair a good absence management policy like the above with a simple, clear company culture deck and you’re onto a winner.