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3 key tips for managing workplace absence

Organisations are increasingly recognising the significant costs associated with high levels of employee absence. At the same time, managers are often unsure about the level and nature of the problems they may be facing, or how these problems are most effectively addressed.


Most managers would accept that some level of absence is inevitable and that it’s generally desirable for employees to be absent from work if they’re genuinely ill. Equally, most managers recognise that handling individual absence issues is often complex and potentially sensitive. 


Long-term sick and disabled people can lose their skills and confidence after long periods of inactivity and isolation. This can have a negative impact on their physical, psychological and social health, as well as their general wellbeing. The CIPD reports that people out of work for more than a year have, on average, eight times more psychological ill health than those in work.1


 Here are three key tips for employers to consider when managing absence: 


  1. Early intervention


Often, companies have a health and well-being strategy, which by its nature, will concentrate on prevention. It’s worth considering a more proactive approach that allows employers to offer help to an employee struggling in work, or to someone who’s just become absent from work with a health problem. This approach may stop a short-term issue escalating into a longer term absence, or in some cases, stop an absence happening at all. 


Many health and wellbeing strategies understandably concentrate on prevention. But services exist that allow employers to step in at the first signs an employee is struggling with a health problem. This can stop a short-term issue from becoming a long-term problem, or even stop the absence from happening at all. 


  1. Communication 


Employers may consider looking at their absence management policy to look at how much communication takes place during a period of absence. Often communication completely breaks down when somebody is away from work with a disability or illness. 


Absent employees can feel they’ve been forgotten about and may worry about their future, whether they have a job, and how much longer they’ll be paid for. Employers may just receive notes from a GP and have no clear idea of what’s going on in the employee’s recovery. 


A policy that gives clear guidance to both parties that communication is expected and is the responsibility of both sides is an essential part of good absence management. This simple measure removes so much uncertainty and keeps employees engaged with the workplace, even if they are physically unable to attend because of their disability or illness. 


  1. Accommodations 


An accommodation is simply an adjustment to a job or work environment, which makes it possible for an individual with a disability or illness to perform their job duties. We often think that accommodations involve purchasing ‘a special chair’ for example, but they can cover all areas of the workplace and need not cost hundreds of pounds. Indeed, one of the most effective job accommodations costs nothing at all – it’s called flexible working. 


Being open to consider accommodations at an early stage and taking into account the employee’s individual needs will reap dividends for the employer. 


In conclusion, employers should consider encouraging staff to return to work while they continue to recover, as long as they are able to contribute in some way to the workplace. It is important to focus on removing the barriers to an employee returning to work, rather than asking whether someone is fit to be in the workplace. As well as being the right thing to do by the employee, accommodating an employee back into work early makes good economic sense for the employer.


Graham Halsey

Director of Well Working Matters


CIPD, 2017 -