‘Flexible working could reduce absence rates’

Flexible working could help reduce absence rates and the current chaos in absence management procedures, according to a report.

Flexible working could help reduce absence rates and the current chaos in absence management procedures, according to a report. The report, Sick Notes: How changes in the workplace and technology demand a rethink of absence management, is by group risk ensurer Ellipse and work expert Professor Carey Cooper. It examines the cause and effect of sickness absence, employee and line manager attitudes towards it.

Sick Notes identifies a number of trends in the workplace:

– Sick employees are getting ‘lost’ in the system, illnesses are allowed to spiral into chronic conditions and line managers are burdened with a responsibility they are often ill-equipped or too ‘time poor’ to handle. The majority of employers (70 per cent) rely on non-HR personnel to handle sickness, with half (45 per cent) of managers admitting that their people responsible for absence management are either not the best equipped to deal with it. Nearly half of managers (41 per cent) say absence procedure is not followed at all.

– The impact of ‘always on’ technology has led to many changes in workplace culture, including a growing grey area between the genuine need to take time off to recover and the pressure to keep working. Gone are the days when you sleep off a bout of flu: today we are a nation of STOICs (Sick Though Often Inbox Checking), who are neither fully off work nor fully working, says the report. Seventy per cent of line managers and the majority of workers believe working from home more frequently (where practical) would reduce hours lost to sickness.

– The prevailing economic climate means working sick is now commonplace, with 80 per cent of people working ill. This is despite the fact that 80 per cent of employers claim to believe that presenteeism – attending work while sick – is a bad thing. On the other hand, while presenteeism is pushing some employees to the brink, says the report, over half of workers still confess to ‘pulling a sickie’ when they weren’t ill.

– There is growing recognition that mental illness is a serious issue in the workplace. The report says it seems managers and employees are beginning to understand mental illness better (60 per cent of line managers compared to 48 per cent of workers). Indeed, managers claim to be at least as sympathetic as their employees towards a range of different illnesses.

The report makes five recommendations to tackle absences:

1. Ensure you have a clear and simple procedure

2. Use technology to monitor trends

3. Maintain proactive contact with the employee

4. Consider external expertise

5. Foster a culture of employee engagement and consider flexible working.

Professor Cary Cooper, Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, says: "We should be trying to prevent long-term absence as much as possible and we can do that in a few ways. Firstly, by looking at ways of flexible working to help those who are able to work, but perhaps not able to come into the office or work set hours. Secondly, we need to encourage employees to not feel obliged to come into work when they are ill as we know a culture of presenteeism is damaging.  "Affecting all employers and all but the very hardiest workers, illness is just a fact of working life, but it’s not always an inevitability.

"In the longer term employers can address absence by ensuring that they do not instil a culture of long working hours, which ultimately lead to demoralised staff and increased sickness, and by training line managers to be fully able to deal with absence management rather than leaving it to chance.

"A few small actions can make a big difference to absence and I urge employers to ask themselves honestly whether their current process is fit for purpose."

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