Absence management is one of those processes that gives HR a bad name. We know that historically HR has been seen as reactive, caught up in compliance and red tape. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to absence management; there are countless examples of HR taking employees to task over their absence record, invoking disciplinary action and even dismissing individuals for the “crime” of too many days away from the office.

The world of work is changing, and with an ever-increasing focus on the employee experience, what does this mean for absence management? How do HR need to change their stance to ensure that absence levels – which can seriously impact an organisation’s productivity (a 2017 report produced by the Centre of Economic and Business Research estimated that workplace absence costs the UK economy £18bn) – are controlled, without detrimentally impacting on the overall employee experience and the psychological contract between employer and employee?

Reasons for absence

To find the answer to this, we need to start by looking at the reasons people are absent from work. These typically fall into the following categories:

A They are on annual leave

B They are genuinely unwell – with either a physical or a mental illness

C They have things happening in their personal life which means they are unable to come into work

D They don’t want to come into work

Let’s take each of these in turn.

The right thing to do

Annual leave is not simply a legal requirement, it’s the right thing to do – for both employer and employee. Few, if any of us, can work day in, day out, for an unlimited period of time without consequence. In a study of 13,000 middle-aged men at risk of heart disease, those who didn’t take holiday for five consecutive years were found to be thirty percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took a break. Even not taking holiday for one year was associated with a higher risk of heart disease. Similar findings were found in women when studied.

Different organisations have trialled different approaches when it comes to annual leave policies. Hitting the headlines have been the likes of Virgin and Netflix with their unlimited paid annual leave on offer to employees. Whilst seemingly generous, the actual benefits of such policies have been debatable. Employees can develop a paranoia over how much leave it is seen as “acceptable” to take, and there are several reports of organisations where offering unlimited leave has perversely led to employees taking less holiday, not more.

Employee wellbeing

When it comes to your annual leave arrangements, the key thing to understand is that getting your employees to take an appropriate level of holiday to rest and recuperate will have direct knock on consequences on their wellbeing – both physical and mental – and thereby their likely level of unplanned absences. Employers therefore need to be both encouraging their employees to take their full annual leave quota, and making it easy for them to book and take it – and properly switch off when they do so, as opposed to having to interrupt their down time with frequent calls and emails. The better quality the time off, the better we enable our people to deliver when they return.

Engendering trust

The next reason that employees may be absent from work is, very simply, because they are unwell. Absence management policies have typically penalised those who need to take time away from work due to ill health, leading to a culture of fear and distrust and increasing trends for “presenteeism” – where employees who should really be at home unwell come into the office, for fear of the consequences should they fail to do so.

HR professionals need to ensure their absence management policies are designed for the many, not for the few. Historically, the typically punitive approach in such policies has been because of a small minority who are perhaps taking time off when not unwell – we’ll come back to this group shortly – thereby tarring the entire workforce based on the behaviour of a handful of employees.

Furthermore, absence management policies need to be far less about a page in an unread employee handbook, and far more about a culture and an employee experience which engenders trust in employees and reassures them that, when they’re genuinely unwell, it’s fine – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – to take the time that they need to recover and get back to their best.

Mental ill health

It’s also worth pointing out at this stage that this applies just as much to those employees experiencing mental ill health as it does to those experiencing physical ill health. Employers need to work to develop a culture where employees feel able to talk openly about mental ill health and take time out to alleviate their symptoms in exactly the same way that they would do if physically unwell.

Let’s move on to look at Group C in the above listing – those employees who have things happening in their personal life which means they are unable to come to work. This might be a bereavement, it might be that childcare or elder care arrangements have fallen through, or it might be something as simple as public transport being cancelled leaving them unable to get into the office.

With most of the above – which, by their nature, are unexpected and therefore unpredictable occurrences – there is arguably little that an employer can do to reduce absences of this nature.

Or is there…

Employee autonomy

The most forward-thinking employers are those which understand that life is not predictable, and that there will therefore be times when employees’ commitments and responsibilities in their personal lives will overshadow those at work. Such employers have designed their workplaces and ways of working to enable employees to work any time, any place, any where. If you take the example of train services to the office being cancelled for the day. Having set up your workforce to be able to work from home means that, rather than the employee being faced with the difficult choice of taking the day as annual or unpaid leave, they are able to work and deliver as normal.

Granted, this isn’t possible in all organisations, dependent upon the business operations, but it is possible in the vast majority. Allowing your employees the autonomy to make the right decisions around where and when they work will mean both you and they are less impacted by unplanned absences, and overall delivery soars as a result.

Why don’t employees want to come to work?

And finally… Group D. The small group of employees who could arguably be said to have tarnished the absence management process for everyone. Employees who are absent from work… because they simply don’t want to be there.

The temptation is almost certainly to lay the blame at the door of those individuals who have phoned up to claim absence on the grounds of a sore throat, with a barely plausible croaky voice put on to convince. Historically, organisations have typically taken robust and decisive action against this group, implementing disciplinary proceedings and even on occasions seeking to dismiss.

The question we need to start asking ourselves though is… why is it that these employees don’t want to come to work?

The human needs of our people

If we respond to those employees who are perhaps feigning illness as a reason not to come into work with punitive measures – at least initially – we are denying ourselves of a valuable opportunity to take a health check on our overall employee experience. Obtaining information about what it is that makes someone not want to come into work isn’t easy, but through regular open dialogue there is a real opportunity to understand what might be blockers to a great employee experience, and seek to remove these.

As HR professionals, our role is to create a workplace, a culture and an overall employee experience which actively makes our people want to – and be able to – come to work. Shifting our mindset when it comes to absence management, and remembering the very human needs of our people, will allow us to do just that.