Strategies for Long and Short Term Absence Management

Why are they different?

All businesses lose when workers are sick.  A way of cutting down losses is to focus on attendance management.  I am going to let you in on a little-discussed fact: absence is not always about being sick.

There are many reasons for workers not coming to work, unfortunately, if employees play the ‘sick’ card, they have learnt that no one can call you out on it.

Remember, to deal effectively with any absence from a strategic point of view, it’s not the reason for the absence that is important, it’s the length of absence that you need to categorise first.

Absence is best divided into one of two categories, either long or short-term absence. Management of these two types of absence is entirely different. In many cases, long-term absence is harder to improve with management methods than short-term absence.

Long term sickness is anything over four weeks, and short-term sickness is anything less than four weeks and includes the odd day off here and there.

Long Term Sickness Absence

Health conditions here vary from accidents to cancers, from operations to mental illness. Hopefully, most workers recover and come back to work when they are well enough to work. Nowadays, using the Fit Note process of looking at capability rather than inability, it’s easier to get GP’s to consider what a person can do earlier, and not wait for full recovery.  This way recovery takes place while working reduced hours or doing different duties. So Managers can help an early return by adjusting the work or hours of work.

See the Pro’s and Con’s of a Phased Return to Work

Short Term Sickness Absence

Strategically, this is where attendance management pays its way; in short-term sickness, Managers can make the biggest impact by reducing days off. It’s because the culture of an organisation has a huge effect on workers behaviour.

Case Study

I once advised a company on their high absence levels.  I found the Supervisors were hugely sympathetic to the workforce.  They would never enquire about the reason for being off work and encourage workers to go home if they showed any slight sign of illness.  The workforce took advantage of this and readily covered for each other so they could have their allocated ‘sick’ days.  Unfortunately, the short-term absence rate rose to such a level that there weren’t enough workers to run lines sometimes and night shifts were barely covered.

You might want to consider whether to adopt an absence management system like the Bradford Index or some other weighting system which differentiates between short and long-term absence and penalises short-term absences more than the long-term.


For Managers

Training is a huge part of knowing what you can affect and what you can’t, especially with long and short-term absence.  Many Managers are afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone who is or has been off sick, due mainly to the political correctness police, which frightens most of us to death, especially those of us who work in public or larger organisations.  Training shows managers what they can and cannot say without the constant need for HR advice.

It’s important to recognise the difference between long and short-term absence, and that short-term absence is where Managers can make a huge difference.  After all, if someone has a broken leg, no amount of threatening or cajoling can help the leg mend any quicker.  However, for workers who tend to take duvet days, they quickly respond to not being paid or even being disciplined.

Without the training, any attendance management programme is likely to fail, as everyone doing their own thing, leading to confusion and claims of favouritism.  So a three-line whip to attend training is imperative if you want it to be successful.

The training would cover the following:

 Legal Aspects of Attendance Management

  • Sick pay – employers have to keep Statutory records
  • Discrimination – what counts as an absence? Disability and pregnancy should do not count in some instances.

Health and Safety Aspects of Attendance Management

  • Risk assessment – is the worker fully fit to return to work?
  • Job changes for short and long-term health conditions.
  • Disability – consider reasonable adjustments as part of the Equality Act.
  • Capability – the worker might be willing, but they may not be safe to work.

Manager Competence

  • How much previous training and experience has the Manager of dealing with sickness?
  • Are they easy-going or strict?
  • Return to work interviews should be consistent and fair.
  • Understanding the impact of absence on business

Company Policy

  • It’s important to know the business view on absence and that all supervisors carry out instructions according to policy.
  • Does the Manager have the option to withhold company sick pay?
  • Do you have an occupational health service you can refer people to?

For Employees

Workers need to know what to do when they are off sick and any penalties if they lie about it.  They also need to know what is available to help them too.

Training would cover the following:

  • Company policy (to include sick pay scheme and self-certification)
  • Reporting rules (time and process)
  • Any monitoring systems e.g. Bradford system
  • Penalties for unauthorised or unjustified absence
  • Work-related ill health and what to do about it, who to tell?
  • Fit for work scheme and job change plans (working with employee’s GP)
  • The effects of absence on your business (disruption, poor customer service, increased costs, mistakes)

Long and Short Term Absence Control

Many Managers will not attempt to control absence, long or short-term unless they understand the basics.  That short-term absence is more about the culture of the business and not being ill.

Or that GP’s can now recommend restricted duties or reduced hours rather than signing employees off sick or suggest an early return to work early after a prolonged absence.  Or, that consistency is key for company-wide reporting rules and return to work interviews.

Workers too, if never challenged believe they have a right to company sick pay or to take as many days off as they want.

With a simple training and awareness programme, commitment and understanding, absence generally, will not be a major problem in your business.

For more information on absence management search on this site or why not purchase The Manager’s Ultimate Guide to Health and Wellbeing at Work – available from Amazon. 

And don’t forget to sign up for my email list too.

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