Health & Wellbeing: Flexible working can reduce staff absence

Flexible working arrangements can help to reduce staff absence levels, but must be deployed in the right way to win employees’ confidence, says Peta Hodge

This was one of the findings of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2009 Absence management survey, published in July, which also found 56% of organisations use flexible working to manage long-term absence, and 44% use it to manage short-term absence.

But is flexible working an effective absence management tool? According to the Employee Benefits/Simplyhealth Healthcare Research 2009, published in June this year, 59% of organisations believe it is.

And although only 16% of the CIPD’s respondents put flexible working in their top three most-effective approaches for managing long-term absence and just 6% for short-term absence, Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Institute, says this does not mean it is not seen as an effective absence management tool. “Flexible working and leave for family emergencies are still in the top 10 [most effective methods],” he says. “The others are the real nuts and bolts of managing sickness absence, such as making sure line managers take responsibility. In that context, flexible working is actually rated very highly.”

Little hard data on effectiveness

But hard data on the effectiveness of flexible working is thin on the ground. David Prosser, strategic development manager at Axa Icas, says: “It is difficult to strip out the cause and effect, because when employers try to do something on absence, they often do a number of things at once. How do they know which bit is responsible for which change?” In fact, ‘flexible working’ is a pretty flexible term, covering everything from flexi-time and homeworking to part-time working and job share. Not all forms of flexible working are best suited to improving staff engagement or reducing absenteeism.

James Baker, a consultant in The Work Foundation’s health and wellbeing programme, says: “There are lots of approaches to flexible working that may suit organisations, but not necessarily individual employees. We are seeing some of that in the current recession, where organisations are going to a four-day week, for example.”

The term sickness absence also covers a multitude of issues, from unauthorised days taken by staff who are insufficiently engaged in the workplace, to the genuinely long-term sick who require occupational health interventions and rehabilitation.

There can be a danger of employers focusing too much on getting absence figures down and failing to investigate what is causing staff to be off work in the first place. Baker says: “Flexible working is going to address absences only if they are caused by difficulties in coming to work, such as travel time, an uncomfortable physical office environment, or if people have caring responsibilities that mean they do not want to come into the workplace.”

Try to avoid presenteeism

For example, someone suffering from flu would not think of coming into the office, but might be prepared to work from home. “This can impact on the quality of their work and may mean they take longer to get back to full capacity,” he says. “People still need to be allowed to be sick.”

One-fifth of respondents to the aforementioned CIPD survey reported seeing an increase in the number of people coming into work ill over the past year, which could be attributed to employees’ concerns about losing their job during the recession.

It is therefore crucial to ensure flexible working policies are designed to tackle any specific issues. For example, Kellogg’s dealt with an absence issue by tailoring flexible working practices to meet its needs (see case study). Fundamental to its scheme’s success is the fact that it is a natural addition to a range of flexible working arrangements that are widely used and valued by staff.

It can also be useful for employers to look at how they want to judge the impact of flexible working arrangements on absence levels. A study of more than 1,500 managers conducted by Les Worrall, professor of strategic analysis at Coventry University, and Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, found there was no significant difference between the absence levels of managers in organisations where flexible working arrangements were offered and in those where they were not.

Flexible working must be valued

In organisations where flexible working was not offered but valued by employees as an option they would like to have, an average of seven days were lost per worker per year. Where flexible working was offered and valued by workers, average absence declined to 3.2 days per worker per year. “There is no point just offering flexible working. It has to be seen to be working,” says Worrall.

Line managers are key to ensuring the success of flexible working policies. It is no good employers offering flexible working if staff fear it would be frowned on by their line manager if they actually took it up. Sue Hayday, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, says: “The key thing in virtually all organisations is the line manager. It is down to them to have the confidence to use their initiative and creativity to manage the individual.”

Line managers must be trained to understand why staff need to work flexibly, whether because of caring responsibilities or because ill health prevents them working long hours. “Ideally, they should be trained in using the whole absence policy,” says Hayday.

Unfortunately for organisations that want to reduce sickness absence, there is no neat formula that says if they introduce flexible working practice X, they will reduce sickness absence by Y amount. But there is a general feeling that where flexible working practices are embraced by an organisation and help make it a better place to work, then sickness absence levels are likely to fall.


Case Study: Kellogg’s

Between May and September, the 660 staff at Kellogg’s head office in Manchester have the option of taking Friday afternoons off, as long as they have completed a 36.6-hour week.

This flexible working arrangement was brought in partly to deal with a specific absence issue – the Friday afternoon ‘sickie’ brought on by an excess of sunshine.

The summer hours arrangement is well established at Kellogg’s, having been running for six years. Although the company has not formally measured its impact, HR director for European reward, Kirsty Leyland, says anecdotal evidence suggests it has brought Friday sickness absence levels down by at least 10-20%.

But she is clear the arrangement works only because it is part of a well-established flexible working policy, which also includes flexitime, home-working, part-time working, jobshare and a flexible benefits scheme that allows staff to buy and sell holiday. These policies are embedded in the company’s culture, written down and formally adopted.

Work-life balance hard to achieve

“I have worked for organisations before that say they have fantastic flexible working practices, but actually work-life balance has been quite difficult to achieve,” she says.

There is often a mis-match between what an organisation says it offers in flexible working and what staff feel it is acceptable to take. However, this is not the case at Kellogg’s because the benefit is taken up by employees at all levels of the organisation.

“My line manager, who is vice-president for HR for Europe, occasionally works summer hours,” says Leyland. “So I see, in practice, at every level of the organisation it feels quite acceptable to do it.”

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