Serco saves on sickness absence

An automated online system has revolutionised Serco Group’s management of sickness absence in its diverse workforce and saved £1 million in the process


Global services company Serco Group has saved £1 million in the first year after implementing a new sickness absence strategy.

It moved from a system where there was no central understanding of long-term sickness absence to one where absence is actively managed and controlled. The success of the initiative earned Serco the award for ‘Most effective absence management and rehabilitation strategy’ at the Employee Benefits Awards 2012.

The diversity of Serco’s workforce, with 30,000 employees spread across more than 200 UK sites in roles ranging from call-centre workers to refuse collectors, prison officers, test pilots and scientists, made it hard to monitor and manage long-term sickness absence.

In 2010, the firm began a review of its sickness absence management process, with adviser Jelf Employee Benefits, with the aims of getting staff back to work more quickly, making sure its rehabilitation services are used, looking after the health and wellbeing of staff and communicating this all effectively.

Lack of communication

Ashleigh Witcher, senior benefits administrator at Serco Group, says: “We had group income protection (GIP) in place for eight years, but the sickness absence management process didn’t gel together and our rehabilitation services were not being used. This was mainly due to a lack of communication around it.”

In April 2011, Serco introduced an online system called Healthtrack, provided by MDG, part of Capita Group, which gives employees access to claims forms and user guides. “Employees log on to the website, then fill out claims forms directly online,” says Witcher. “The technology part of it is key for us, but it isn’t just a technological system; it activates person-to-person management of absent staff.”

The process is fully automated, so an absence is identified to payroll, the line manager gets involved and, if there is no response from the employee after two follow-ups, it is referred to head office. Witcher adds: “Early intervention is a must. Employees who do not engage will be told their claim will not be taken forward unless they engage in all parts of the process.”

Track claims

Serco Group, MDG and insurer Unum have access to the same online system and can track all claims at any time. The system ensures that the employee is referred to the relevant contact, whether a vocational rehabilitation consultant from Unum or one of Serco’s own occupational health managers.

The technology has proved particularly useful for off-site workers, whose absences have been more difficult to monitor, particularly seamen and marine workers, says Witcher. “We are a very diverse company. We have contracts all over the place. This system has allowed us to manage absence and gives information in real time, a huge achievement across 200-plus sites and 30,000 employees. Because of this diversity, it is imperative long-term sickness absence is controlled by an automatic process. At any one time, we can see the exact state of progress of absence with any employee.”

All long-term absence is now registered within four weeks, resulting in a referral to rehabilitation services or occupational health managers. After nine weeks, a claim for group income protection goes out. At 10 weeks, another check takes place to see if the condition is suitable for rehabilitation or return to work, followed by concentrated intervention, such as physiotherapy sessions or MRI scans, if required.

“We have discovered that by having a four 10 weeks, another check takes place to see if the condition is suitable for rehabilitation or return to work, followed by concentrated intervention, such as physiotherapy sessions or MRI scans, if required.

“We have discovered that by having a four-week gateway, we discover at an early stage whether there are any work-related issues that should be dealt with by the appropriate HR policy, rather than group income protection,” says Witcher.

£1 million cost savings

The system has reduced sickness absence at Serco and enabled employees to return to work more quickly, reducing the cost of absence and leading to greater productivity for the business. It has also delivered cost savings of about £1 million in its first year.

Witcher adds: “The cost reduction represents the amount that would have been spent on sickness absence pay if the employees had not returned to work. This value is not necessarily monetary, it is really about the return-to-work value.”

The new process was communicated to employees in various ways, including workshops, roadshows, HR forums, face-to-face presentations, an employee handbook, details on the company intranet and through Serco’s internal magazine.

“Managers also filtered the message down to staff,” says Witcher. “The system is proactively communicated to new employees and is used as part of a holistic approach to absence management.”

Employee engagement with the system has increased since its launch. There were 194 referrals in the first eight months, compared with fewer than 10 a month in the previous year. Witcher adds: “Of these referrals, 93 have progressed to assessment, with 48 receiving active rehabilitation support and 34 already engaged with return-to-work programmes.

“Employing 30,000 staff, it has been imperative to understand absence and get people back to work as quickly as possible for the smooth running of the business.

“This approach has achieved just that, offering a personal approach on a nationwide scale. If we can get between 65% and 70% of employees to return to work, then any other organisation can do it too.”


Serco at a glance

Serco Group was founded in 1929 as the UK division of the Radio Corporation of America and first provided services to the film industry. It changed its name to Serco in 1987 and has been listed on the London Stock Exchange since 1988.

Its operations include public and private transport and traffic control, aviation, military and nuclear contracts, detention centres, prisons and schools. Serco has 30,000 UK employees across more than 200 sites. It has a diverse workforce, ranging from call-centre staff to refuse collectors, prison officers, test pilots and scientists.

Profile: Ashleigh Witcher

Ashleigh Witcher, senior benefits administrator at Serco Group, has been with the firm since October 2010. She oversees the long-term absence management strategy and group income protection (GIP) scheme for the organisation’s UK employees.

Previously, Witcher was HR and payroll officer at the London Borough of Hounslow, where she provided HR and payroll support to a number of primary and secondary schools.

She has also held a variety of roles in recruitment, account management and customer services.