Absence management – what’s the big idea? 

What is absence management and how could it help your organisation?

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What is absence management?

Absence management is the process by which an organisation deals with absence in the workplace.

It includes things like establishing the reason for days taken off work, supporting staff while they’re off and as they return to work, arranging cover where necessary, and preventing the number of lost working days from multiplying unnecessarily.  
Effective absence management allows employers to identify patterns and trends to get to the root of any burgeoning problems and support employee wellbeing.  

The importance of absence management is not to be underestimated; days off work due to illness cost UK employers a staggering £43 billion in 2021

One of the major challenges employers face is the balance between prioritising the health and wellbeing of your people, and that of your business and its bottom line. Thankfully, with the right tools and systems in place, you can do both. 

The importance of absence management

There are both short term and long-term factors that make managing absence so crucially important. 
In the short term, absence management means you know who is off work, why, and when they will return. This enables you to make smarter workforce decisions and swiftly arrange cover, putting the right people in the right place at the right time to avoid disruption, maintain productivity, and minimise associated costs. Real-time access to data such as this – paired with reporting and planning tools – allows you to make the best use of your available resources. 

The real importance of absence management though, is in the long term. If you have an effective system in place, which not only records absence but also helps you to analyse the data you gather, you can identify trends in your workforce over time and understand what are the unique issues affecting your employees.  

Data can guide you in taking proactive steps to support your staff in these areas, boosting wellbeing and minimising potential absence, while improving the employee experience.

You can also facilitate swift referrals to specialist support providers, maximising engagement with often-underused services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and Occupational Health, and this early intervention can make a world of difference; effectively ‘nipping problems in the bud’ before they worsen. This benefits individual members of staff, and it also creates a positive culture that helps to attract and retain the best talent, bolstering your business for years to come.

Why most organisations don’t manage absence effectively

Because absence is inevitable… isn’t it? 

Some businesses may admit to feeling powerless in the face of staff absence: after all, the human condition means people will always be ill, whether it’s COVID, mental health, musculoskeletal problems, or a host of other issues. It can feel overwhelming to try and ‘tackle’ something that seems inevitable. So much so that many businesses simply don’t bother trying to manage absence or track its cost.  

However, the perpetual nature of illness and its varying causes is exactly why businesses should look to harness the power of data. 

Tracking patterns of absence means you can identify problem areas and minimise the associated costs and risks.

With days off work due to illness costing UK businesses tens of £billions each year, these considerations really should be prioritised for the sake of your people and your bottom line. 

Monitoring is not the same as managing 

There is a distinct difference between recording absence and managing it well. Most companies have rudimentary systems in place for reporting absence, where employees ring HR or simply let their line manager know they’re not feeling well, for example. But effective absence management is much more than just keeping a note of when somebody is off work and arranging the relevant cover. 

Instead of only recording absence, a more strategic approach can actually reduce the number of days off due to illness and reduce the incidence of recurring absences. An in-depth system can also produce powerful data which can be acted upon for the ongoing health of both staff and business. 
With more accuracy in reporting and analysis, trends can be identified and solutions found to prevent growing problems. For example, if it becomes apparent that people in the same department are repeatedly off work due to musculoskeletal issues, it could point to a need to investigate the ergonomics of their particular work environment.  
More information and a fuller understanding of what issues employees are facing removes the guesswork and can help you create an effective plan to achieve tangible results. 

Consistency is key 

It’s no good if one department logs absences on an online system and another simply pens notes in a diary. Your absence management system should be consistent across the organisation so that company-wide patterns of absence can be properly understood. This allows more action to be taken in response to workforce trends.  

Avoiding stigma, enabling accuracy 

A fundamental problem in calling in sick to work, is that it can often feel awkward or embarrassing. Ideally, your people should be able to speak to a dedicated and impartial third party in confidence so they can explain (without inhibition) their reason for being off work. 

For example, employees might not want to talk to a close colleague or line manager about mental health struggles, and may in such cases be more likely to blame their absence on something else. Perhaps a stomach upset or the flu. This wrongful attribution of causation then disguises the important need for targeted mental health support.  

Early intervention can be achieved far more effectively if employees speak to a specialist in the first instance. Clinicians can help to quickly and accurately triage symptoms and ensure the right help is given at the earliest opportunity.  

This is one of the ways that GoodShape’s nurse-led service helps to reduce incorrect self-diagnosis in employees reporting absence, picking up on symptoms that might otherwise go unnoticed, be inadequately treated, or inaccurately recorded.  

It is only possible for employers to work on providing the right support solution if they first understand the problem. 

Can you be ‘absent’ when you’re already at home? 

Since COVID, the growing number of people working from home has skyrocketed and this has presented further challenges for employers. It can seem trickier to monitor productivity and absence in the same way when staff are not based in the office. For one thing, the blurred line between work and home means staff may be less likely to call in sick as they are already in their own house.  

What makes it a ‘sick day’ if you can work from bed? 

This grey area of absence vs working from home, is one of many situations that can lead to ‘presenteeism’ where employees continue to work despite not feeling well.  

As well as subpar work being produced, this approach can lead to more serious illness, stress and burnout. 

It’s important that employees feel able to draw a distinction and have proper work/life balance, otherwise they are at risk of resenting work for infiltrating their home life, which is not the route to a positive, healthy and motivated workforce. It’s important to use the mindset of ‘employee as customer’ if you want to attract and retain the best talent. If employees don’t feel aligned with the organisation’s culture they are likely to look elsewhere; one of the factors often cited in relation to the purported ‘Great Resignation’. 
Beyond the impact on your own organisation and its employees, there are other risks to take into account if people carry on working while not at their best: consider the potentially catastrophic consequences of medical professionals and drivers continuing with their responsibilities while unfit for these duties. 
Positive PR garnered through building the employee value proposition showcases your organisation as a worthy and understanding place to work. Opening up a dialogue with employees about what they need in order to be their ‘best self’ can lead to a more proactive and collaborative relationship, resulting in everyone more willingly ‘pulling in the same direction’ and working harder for the company overall. 

It’s particularly important that staff can confide in the right person about mental health if they need to, so you can ensure they get the appropriate support before things worsen and you risk losing staff; GoodShape data shows that more than half of workers who take two or more mental health-related absences will subsequently go on to leave their jobs.  
A small investment in early intervention support can pay dividends. This is backed up by Deloitte research which proves that it pays to support employees’ mental health:

“On average, for every £1 spent on supporting their people’s mental health, employers get £5 back on their investment in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover.”

Proactive absence management

In simple terms, proactive absence management is essentially a kinder, more involved and more effective approach to helping your people through issues affecting their attendance at work.   

It means that there is a programme in place supporting employee wellbeing before they even need to take any time off. From the very moment a member of staff calls in sick, the process is designed to help them recover more quickly, return to work safely, and prevent similar illnesses or injury in future.  

Whether it’s counselling, physio or employee assistance, early intervention leads to better results and a swifter return to health, and work. In terms of cost, the investment in such support programmes is usually more than recouped in the savings made by the reduction in lost working days, as Deloitte calculated with regards to mental health (for every £1 spent on support, employers will get £5 back in productivity etc).  
Proactive absence management also reduces risk, both to employees and to your business as a whole. It allows you to pinpoint issues and prevent them from taking root. If you are informed of a particular catalyst for stress, or you can identify a common cause of musculoskeletal problems you can remove it, preventing recurrence and also saving other team members going down the same route. Reassuringly, effective absence management systems also provide an impartial ‘paper trail’ should one ever be needed in the case of employment tribunal, etc. 

Absence management could become one of your organisation’s USPs 

From a business point of view, a kind and understanding approach builds the employee value proposition and will pay dividends in the way your staff feel about your organisation and how they represent it to others. 

When it comes to recruiting and retaining the best talent, positive ‘employee PR’ is a major factor. Choosing a company to work for is not only about bonuses and pay rises, it’s about the organisation’s values and how it deals with staff on a day-to-day basis.  
Company culture is playing an increasingly important role in the decision-making process for candidates, and those organisations that can offer meaningful work and high employee engagement will leave the competition behind when it comes to attracting top talent.

According to Accenture’s Abbie Walsh:

“We now have a job seekers’ market and organisations need to work harder than ever to attract and obtain great talent. Staff now see through gimmicky benefits and expect more from their employer for a better lifestyle overall. Our latest Fjord Trends report, shows that people […] want real initiatives that support a better home life, such as flexible hours or childcare assistance.” 


Consider potential employees as customers, and existing staff as the salespeople of your organisation – what would they say about their employee experience?  

Do your staff know what’s available to them? 

Proactive absence management can become a ‘hub’ for your organisation’s other wellbeing services. Many traditional wellbeing offerings (such as Employee Assistance Programmes or Occupational Health) are notoriously underused, engaging with <10% of a workforce per year. With 70% of your workforce likely to engage with an effective absence management programme each year, staff can be referred or ‘signposted’ to these other services, ensuring that they become better used. Alternatively, it may become apparent that these services are missing the mark for a reason, and they can then be replaced with an alternative, making better use of resources. 

Return to work interviews 

Instead of employees coming straight back to work and being ‘dropped in at the deep end’, return to work interviews can open up a dialogue about how best to move forward. Really listening to individuals about what they need can often reveal solutions that are mutually beneficial to both employer and employee. These interviews can go a long way to reducing absence and strengthening working relationships. 

GoodShape guides managers on RTW interviews by providing a tailored interview form which ensures that questions are pertinent to the respective reason for absence. This strengthens the understanding between both parties and helps facilitate conversations that can bring tangible results moving forward. 

When your people thrive, your organisation excels 

Effective absence management benefits both the individual and the whole organisation.  

GoodShape helps employers care for their employees, with tools, systems and clinical expertise. 
24/7 confidential clinical support means that individuals access the guidance they need as soon as possible, with swift referrals to specialists. 

GoodShape’s planning tools also help you plan resources most effectively and make smarter workforce decisions. 
The importance of absence management is clear in how it serves both employer and employee. It increases productivity and reduces risks to individuals and organisations. 
Valuable real-time insights from effective absence management systems help inform and improve leadership decision making. 
Supporting the wellbeing of your employees through effective absence management is not just the right thing to do for the people under your management; it holds powerful competitive advantages for the performance of your business. 

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