Where are my people and how are they?

If you can’t answer the two questions in this headline at any time and with data, you do not have absence and illness risks under control in your business. Tough I know but in our life and disability insurance trade we see evidence everyday that a large proportion of big businesses can’t provide a list of their people who are severely or terminally ill.  That is a clear symptom of not having a reliable process for absence management.

 Employee absence, whether a result of illness or injury, can have a destabilising impact on any business and when absence is long-term it can have serious repercussions on your business margins.

Getting to grips with handling long-term absence is a challenge for most SMEs. Although rehabilitation and long-term support is available for some via an occupational health provider or an insurance company, when absence is infrequent it is easy to forget the support systems that are there to help you. It can be a challenge to ensure that line managers have the skills and confidence to actively manage absence in the workplace.

In my experience, the provision of manager training and support to deal with absence is quite often lacking amongst SMEs especially. This is understandable due to the infrequency of such events in reality and the lack of a dedicated HR resource in many cases. However there are simple steps that even the smallest companies can do to positively impact on the wellbeing of their staff and their business’ productivity.

Absence management is all about the data

Effective absence management depends on the accurate recording of an employee’s planned and unplanned absences. Often absence recording can be patchy, with inconsistent reporting standards and variable levels of data collection and analysis. The result is that many employers simply don’t know why their people are not in the workplace or, if they’re sick, how they are.

When discussing workplace absence with other employers, I often hear that employee absence “isn’t a problem in my company”, or “no-one takes any time off”. Chances are they probably do, but it isn’t being recorded or monitored. Or rather, it’s not been identified as a major business issue. Yet!

Just like many other business decisions you make every day, when looking for guidance the first place to look is at the data.

As a company with 40 employees, Ellipse has recently introduced an online tool to help manage our people and we’ve found it very useful. Employees are required to login and book holiday or planned absences, with notifications sent to their manager for approval. Similarly managers can log sickness absence for any staff members against pre-defined conditions and record return to work forms all online once the employee has returned.

This is a simple tool – managing absence data doesn’t need to be overly complicated – and it gives us an accurate view of where our people are and how they are. It also means our managers don’t need to think about the process.  They just do it and it quickly becomes second nature.

With a more stable process in place, we are able to identify absence patterns and put action plans in place where needed. Whether it’s a referral to rehabilitation services or a meeting with the employee to discuss repeat patterns of absence, all of this is only possible with consistent data collection, recording and reporting.

Don’t neglect the people side of absence

With the value of absence data hopefully becoming clearer, it’s important to put equal emphasis on how you engage with your people.

There are many sensitive issues in the workplace that managers must tackle and many of them will be outside the line manager’s comfort zone.  Organisations that can call on a dedicated HR resource to help have an enviable advantage, but those who don’t can still take comfort from the support available from other sources.

Employee Assistance Programmes, as they are generically styled, provide a support service for employees as well as a source of practical advice for managers. Advice on any issue affecting an employee’s attendance or performance in the workplace is available online and over the telephone and can help get to the root cause of any issue, minimising its impact on the employee and their employer.

While all businesses should make preparations for potential long-term employee sickness, often the most practical way to manage absence is to set up your internal processes and support infrastructure so they become embedded within the day-to-day processes and culture of your organisation.  The heart of the matter is to be talking to the employee early enough to make a difference and to reduce the risk of a short term absence being the start of a longer term or complex absence.


About John Ritchie

John Ritchie is the founding CEO of Ellipse, a specialist online insurer covering the death and disability benefits offered by companies to their employees. He set up the business for Munich Re Group to challenge the long-established players in that sector and firmly believes that the digital age enables small, nimble companies, like Ellipse, to compete successfully with the big boys.