Feature – Pros and cons of the newest absence management scheme

Employee absence is endemic and is costing British industry nearly £600 per worker per year, but using medical services to patrol staff can backfire, says Jenny Keefe

If you read nothing else, read this …

• The newest type of absence management scheme involves staff reporting illness to occupational health nurses who offer advice and then inform line managers.
• The scheme can cut absence rates by collating data on patterns and staff might be reluctant to help themselves to a complimentary day off once they realise the effort involved.
• While they may cut rates at the margins, employers should be aware that such schemes might treat the symptoms and not the cause.

A third of British workers have faked it. That is, thrown a ‘sickie’ because they were too tired or too hungover to go into work, according to research published by Lloyds TSB in April last year.

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What’s more, the cost of this guilty pleasure is escalating. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Employee absence 2004 survey showed that the average cost of sickness absence per employee has hit £588 a year.

"Sick days are endemic in this country", confirms Louise Hadland, HR director at law firm Shoosmiths. "I know it’s a generalisation, but there is just this mentality that one is entitled to a certain number of sick days per year."

So it’s easy to see why many employers are keen to jump on the latest absence management bandwagon. The newest breed of scheme works like this: staff report absences to occupational health nurses who offer advice and then inform managers if staff will be a no-show.

Shoosmiths adopted such a scheme in September, and so far, the signs are good; there has been a slight dip in absence numbers and healthy feedback from employees. "I have notes from people saying how much they appreciate being able to talk to nurses. One lady in particular who lives on her own has said that she found being able to talk about the problems really helpful," says Hadland.

However, the change has received a chilly reception from some workers, "who don’t feel that they should have to talk to the nurse," she adds.

Such critics are concerned that they will be subjected to a spotlight interrogation by "some battleaxe", says Hadland. Certainly, the schemes are loathed by unions because they can be used as a tool to flag up the persistently ill, who may then be labeled as fakers. But using the service to patrol staff could backfire. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Lancaster, says: "The minute that an employee sniffs that this is a punitive exercise to find out whether they are lying or cheating, they won’t use the service. And it will be counter productive." Instead of treating symptoms, employers should attend to the cause.

Melvyn Measures, proposition delivery manager at healthcare advisers First Assist, which offers such a service, says: "There will be people phoning in with symptoms which, shall we say, don’t sound life threatening and the nurses will challenge them. [Staff] are less likely to pull the wool over the eyes of a trained medical professional, so there is a certain deterrent."

, coupled with data which identifies persistent Monday offenders, for example, could weed out malingerers. So the schemes can be useful as a way to collate data on absence patterns. If organisations act on this data and review workplace issues, such as stress, they won’t need to hop on the next absence management bandwagon that rolls past. "The service is like NHS Direct. What it will do is provide staff with the answer to a flu or some other minor illness. But what troubles me with the sickness absence rates in the UK, is that they are underpinned by something more substantial than just a cold," says Cooper.