Download a PDF of the Employee Benefits/Cigna Workplace Absence Research 2011.
How employers manage workplace absence strategies
Nearly all respondents (98%) record absence in their organisations, and the most popular ways of doing so are through an online HR or payroll self-service system – as used by 35% of respondents. A further 35% record absence manually or use paper forms.
Larger organisations, with more than 500 employees, are more likely to use an HR or payroll system, while smaller employers, with up to 500 employees, are more likely to use paper-based methods.
Responsibility for managing absence most commonly falls into the hands of line managers, according to 51% of respondents, while HR departments are responsible in 37% of respondents’ organisations.
Overall, the most common length of absence per employee in respondents’ organisations is between three and 5.9 days a year, which is experienced by 41%. This is a slight improvement on figures from the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) survey On the path to recovery: Absence and workplace health survey 2010, which found a national average of 6.4 days per employee.
However, it is perhaps worrying that nearly half of employers (44%) said up to 10% of absences in their organisation lasted between eight and 28 days, while for more than half (57%), up to 10% of absences lasted more than 28 days. The longer an employee is absent from work, the lower the chances may be of them returning.
Reducing absence is the most common objective for most respondents’ absence management strategies. This looks set to continue, with a further 10% planning to tackle absence in the next two years. Improving employee engagement and supporting a healthy workforce will also be a top priority for nearly a quarter more respondents (22% and 23%, respectively) in the next two years.
Tactically, the most important benefit of managing absence for employers is to provide a consistent approach to the task, cited by 75%. A further 72% say it is to keep absence levels under control, while 65% believe it is getting staff back to work more quickly.
Just under half (45%) say reducing long-term absence is a key advantage of managing absence, and 44% claim it is to fulfil their duty-of-care obligations
Interestingly, employers appear more concerned with strategies that support a healthy workforce rather than improving profitability. This demonstrates the reasoning that healthy employees are more productive, which, in turn, is reflected in the bottom line.
Value and a positive relationship appear to be more attractive to employers than a provider’s low costs and service offerings. The need for a provider to offer expertise and relieve some of the employer’s work pressures are considered to be more important than a best-in-class product, or a bundled-service offering.
Employees require absence recording to be easily accessible and readily available. The most popular method of accessing this is online, although this could make it more difficult for employers to identify whether an absence reported in this way is genuine.
Face-to-face contact often enables employees to receive a more accurate diagnosis or to be referred to other benefits more quickly, which may be why 67% of respondents felt employees preferred to access occupational health services in this way.
Employee assistance programmes (EAP) received high responses for all three methods of access, with telephone (62%) the most popular.
Occupational health and private medical insurance (PMI) are seen as two of the most effective services in helping respondents to achieve their absence management goals. These can help employees to obtain a timely diagnosis or receive speedy access to treatment, enabling them to return to work more quickly.
Nearly half of respondents said an absence recording service and childcare vouchers also have an impact on absence. Both can help to reduce the number of staff that may be absent for reasons other than genuine sickness.
Employers’ main priorities over the past year have been to reduce absence levels and improve staff engagement, so providing benefits such as PMI will help an organisation position itself as a responsible employer, which can have an impact on engagement.
Creating a culture of clear absence management procedures has proved an effective strategy, with 90% of employers citing it as having an effect on managing absence. Some 85% of employers that provide flexible working arrangements said this is effective in managing absence levels. High levels of staff engagement and line manager training are also considered effective.
Enabling staff to have high levels of control over their work and the working environment are also thought to be effective in managing absence. One-fifth of respondents said giving staff such control was highly effective in this area, while 52% felt it had some impact. Similarly, 17% considered giving staff control over their working environment to be highly effective, and 49% said it had some impact.
As the economy slowly recovers, employers are also considering preventative strategies that aid employee wellbeing in the next few years.
The recession damaged staff mental resilience at 67% of employers. The biggest impact was stress and loss of motivation, possibly due to money worries or job insecurity. Employees reported increased stress in 61% of organisations, the biggest concern being fear of redundancy (71%). Almost half of employers said the recession had decreased motivation levels.
Two-thirds of employers (66%) are concerned there will be a greater onus on them to manage absence or rehabilitation in the future. However, last year’s introduction of the fit note does not seem to be fulfilling its purpose of helping employers to facilitate employees’ return to work.
Introduced on 6 April 2010, the fit note replaced the sick note for staff who are absent for more than seven days. The statement of fitness for work, issued by doctors, contains two options: “unfit for work” or “may be fit for work taking account of the following advice…”. Doctors can suggest ways of helping an employee return to work, which might mean, for example, a phased return, altered hours or amended duties.
This research was conducted in December 2010 among readers of Employee Benefits and users of employeebenefits.co.uk. The analysed sample is HR and benefits managers who are responsible for, influence or manage health and wellbeing at their organisations – a total of 408 respondents.
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