Need to know:
- Mental health issues and musculoskeletal disorders are common causes of employee absence.
- Occupational health services, group risk products, and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can support ill or absent employees.
- An effective absence management strategy should incorporate a range of benefits to address different absence issues.
The average level of absence per employee is 6.9 days a year, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth’s Absence management survey, published in October 2015. The report also found that three-quarters of employers believe it is possible to reduce instances of absence. Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, says: “Employers must recognise that employees’ absences are complex, so organisations need a strong policy with an array of benefits and services in place.”
The Absence management survey demonstrates that employees may be absent from the workplace due to a vast range of issues. Minor illnesses, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), back pain and stress were the most common reasons for short-term absence, while acute medical conditions, stress, MSDs, mental ill-health and back pain were the most common causes of long-term absence. The benefits employers offer must, therefore, reflect employees’ varied circumstances.
Occupational health services
Occupational health services can support healthy workforces by offering impartial health advice, whether face-to-face, by telephone, return-to-work programmes, reasonable adjustments to work, and signposting to additional assistance.
Fiona Lowe, head of HR at Westfield Health, says: “Occupational health schemes, keeping-in-touch days, discussions around GP reports, general rehabilitation, and workplace mentors are great for longer-term absences.”
Employers also need to emphasise that staff should not be returning to work unless they are truly fit and able to, adds Avis.
Group risk products
Group risk products are designed to provide financial protection, but these can also be very effective in the fight against absenteeism and presenteeism. Yet, some employers may not be aware of the additional support available through group risk benefits, says Katherine Moxham, spokesperson at industry body Group Risk Development (Grid). “Group risk policies can include legal training for managers and HR departments, general face-to-face and bereavement counselling, talking therapies or physiotherapy,” she explains.
Offering a range of benefits, such as group risk in addition to occupational health services, will help an employer more effectively manage absence, says Rebekah Haymes, senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson. “Employers need to integrate benefits to make sure they work together from day one of employees’ absence from different touch points,” she adds.
A common approach to managing employee absence is offering flexible-working polices, which allow staff to negotiate their working pattern with their employer to better suit both parties. Lowe says: “Flexible-working policies can really help with improving work-life balance and therefore stress-related illnesses or mental [wellbeing].”
According to research published by Grid in January 2016, 36% of employers have implemented flexible working initiatives to address absence rates.
Mental health resilience training
With stress and mental ill-health accounting for large proportions of absence, employers can implement programmes such as line manager and HR training to spot early-warning signs so that employees can be directed towards appropriate support services.
Adrian Lewis, absence management expert at Activ Absence, says: “By the time stress is identified as an issue, it is often already sufficiently advanced as to require long-term absence from work.”
Employers may seek to manage stress with wellness initiatives such as yoga classes and counselling, says Lewis. However, he adds: “Employees with genuine depression are unlikely to take these up unless specifically recommended.”
If employers fail to keep on top of mental health-related absences, particularly in the first four to six weeks of absence, the employee is likely to become disengaged, says Avis.
Employee assistance programmes
An employee assistance programme (EAP) provides support to employees through confidential information and counselling, usually by telephone or online, but can include face-to-face counselling if necessary. While an EAP can help to support an employee, it can also offer the employer anonymous management information, which can be used to form an absence management strategy.
An EAP can also encompass several absence management benefits such as health screening, health assessments and occupational health intervention for stress-related absences. Avis says: “EAPs are a confidential service and can encourage employees struggling with mental health issues, money issues and so on. Formal manager referrals really are a hidden gem in absence management.”
Ultimately, having an effective and robust absence management policy in place can have widespread benefits for businesses and staff. As Westfield Health’s Lowe says: “Having engaged and healthy employees can only be good for the bottom line.”