Attendance Management

by Kate Russell

Keeping records

You must have a system for recording absence, or it will be impossible to measure specific types, such as long-term sickness absence, and to notice when trigger points have been reached. Without the information to indicate the scale of the problem, you will be unable to manage the situation effectively.

Before absence can be tackled, your organisation has to record what’s happening in a systematic way. The information needs to be accurately recorded and monitored. It’s only then that absence can be managed.

Staff need to know the correct reporting procedures, what documentation they’re expected to complete and what information they should submit.

Some companies create and publish league tables to compare absence data emerging from different departments or sites. These can prove a useful reminder to managers and provide information which can be used in review meetings.

Employers are required to keep records of SSP for the HMRC (see Introduction to SSP).

One of the chief advantages of objective measurement and analysis of absence is the correction or confirmation of subjective views. Just because a few employees have unacceptable absence levels or there are one or two long-term cases of sickness in key positions, this should not be understood to suggest that there is a major overall problem where only a limited one exists. On the other hand, the data may highlight a widespread problem in need of extensive remedial action.

The questions to be posed are

  • Is there really a problem?
  • Which sections or shifts are affected?
  • Are particular groups affected, such as one sex or ethnic minority?
  • Does the problem extend throughout the whole organisation or is it confined to one or two departments or functions?
  • How many employees are involved – only a few or a large number, indicating a general problem?
  • What type of absence is involved – mainly certificated absences or many cases of one-day absences or lateness?

If you wish to compare your organisation’s absence rate with that of other companies in the industry or geographical area, in order to see how serious the problem is and to decide whether special action is needed, you may be able to obtain figures for other organisations through local employers’ groups. National surveys of absence are carried out periodically by bodies such as the CBI and the Work Foundation.

Another source of information is The Labour Force Survey, prepared by the Government Statistical Service, which provides information about employees’ absences from work caused by sickness or injury. Enquiries can be made through the Office for National Statistics by email at [email protected] or by phone 0845 601 3034.

Methods of measuring absence

Organisations define and measure absence in a number of different ways, including and excluding various types of absence. The most common measure of absence is the lost time rate. This shows the percentage of the total time available which has been lost because of absence from all causes in a given period.

The lost time rate can be regarded as an overall measure of the severity of the problem. If calculated separately by department or group of employees, it can show up particular problem areas.

Total time lost, however, may consist of a small number of people who are absent for long periods, or a large number absent for short spells. A measure of ‘frequency’ may be needed to show how widespread the problem is, so that an organisation can formulate an appropriate plan to reduce it.

The frequency rate shows the average number of spells of absence per employee (expressed as a percentage) irrespective of the length of each spell.

If the organisation wishes to monitor the number of employees absent at all during the period, the individual frequency rate can be used:

Patterns of absence

Although each individual absence is different, general patterns often emerge. These vary because they are influenced by a variety of factors, such as management style, traditions of behaviour and working conditions. Research has identified, however, that these patterns often display a number of common features, listed below.

  • Young people tend to have more frequent, shorter periods of sickness than older people.
  • The most likely periods for absence are Mondays, Fridays, before or after a bank holiday, and late shifts.
  • Manual employees generally have higher levels of absence than office employees.
  • Unauthorised absence is more common among new starters; longer serving employees get to know the organisation’s standards and stay within the framework.
  • Absences can sometimes relate to annual events: for example, school holidays, public holidays or major sporting occasions.
  • Sick leave due to industrial accidents is also greater for new or inexperienced employees.
  • Absence tends to increase where there are high levels of overtime or frequently rotating shift patterns.
  • Absence is likely to be greater in larger companies.

Implications of the Data Protection Act 1998

Data relating to the reasons for sickness absence is sensitive personal data. Part 2 of the Code of Practice dealing with employment records suggests that absence records should be recorded separately from sickness records.

Part 4 of the Code dealing with medical records and health information established the general principle that employers should only collect information relating to the health of individual employees if

  • Express, freely given consent has been provided by the employee(s) concerned, or
  • The collection is necessary to enable compliance with the employer’s legal obligations (for example, to prevent breaching the health and safety regulations and/or anti-discrimination rules).

Collection of medical records and health information relating to individual employees not covered by the above is likely to be unlawful and a breach of the act.

There are no legal guidelines on what constitutes long-term and short-term absence. That’s a matter for the organisation to decide and depends partly on how they choose to record it. It’s important to distinguish between the different types of absence.

Ensure reporting procedures are followed

It’s important to ensure that notification of absence is made at the earliest possible opportunity. There should be clear procedures for employees to follow when they are advising you of their absence.

What are your standards relating to the notification of sickness? Decide on the following and communicate them to your staff.

  • Who should report the sickness absence to the organisation?
  • To whom should the absence be reported?
  • By what time?

Employees are usually asked to make the call in person. In many cases, companies allow a third party to place a call on behalf of the sick employee. This isn’t a satisfactory arrangement, nor is it a good idea to allow messages to be taken by switchboards or left on an answerphone. Managing absence is about managing employees on a person-to-person basis.

You should encourage employees to stick to the reporting requirements. In most cases there will be no reason why the employee can’t comply. Research shows that the vast majority of time taken off as sickness absence is short term and for very minor illnesses, few of which preclude the use of a phone.

Where there are exceptional circumstances and the employee can’t call in person (for example, the employee’s in casualty waiting to have a broken leg set), it’s a good idea to find out what the situation is and whether you can do anything to help out.

For many a busy manager, this is a responsibility that arises at the start of the day when he’s trying to deal with lots of other pressing matters. You might consider training a nominated person to take such calls.

Another option is to outsource this part of the process to a specialist third party. For example, Brakes Group staff who are unable to attend work call a 24-hour nurse-based helpline. The nurses carry out a confidential health discussion by phone, recording the absence and giving the employee advice based on the symptoms reported. The employee’s line manager is advised by email and it is the line manager who has the face-to-face conversation at the return-to-work meeting.