Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder – according to the old cliché – but it also leaves businesses out of pocket. One estimate reckons that the cost to the UK economy is over £18 billion. Not something to be particularly proud of – nor the sort of number that we can afford to ignore as a nation.
Yet, while figures such as this might grab the headlines – and really ought to justify a more serious debate at the highest level – it’s important not to allow ourselves to believe that this is an abstract issue that can be left for someone else to deal with.
A sick day for the average UK worker costs about £100 each – so a high rate of absenteeism will soon mount up to become a big drain on a company’s bottom line. That means businesses must take it seriously and, if we’re being blunt, the vast majority could and should do better.
In our latest report – The Absenteeism Report 2018: Causes, Consequences and Cures – we’ve looked in detail at the issues that everyone in HR needs to get their heads around. We’ve also spoken to hundreds of HR professionals to gauge the state of play right now.
The first problem is understanding the term absenteeism. People need to realise that this is a broad umbrella term and that lots of specific issues – all of which need to be understood in their own right – sit beneath it. Only when you thoroughly get to grips with short term sickness, long term sickness, unauthorised absences and the associated topics of leaveism and presenteeism, will you really appreciate absenteeism and how to tackle it.
The greatest gap in the response to absenteeism, however, comes from people being stuck in a reactive mode.
In some ways, this is only natural. After all, monitoring absence, collecting data, conducting back-to-work interviews - and acting - on absence trigger points all, by necessity, come in reaction to a period of absence.
But, on its own, this is not enough. Looking backwards is not going to take you forwards – and won’t ensure you’re doing everything in your power to reduce absenteeism.
The next stage for businesses is to take action that is proactive and preventative. That means using expertise and data insight to reduce absenteeism before it becomes a problem.
The good news is that the digital revolution in HR has laid the groundwork for this to happen.
When researching our Absenteeism Report, a majority of the people we asked – 57.19% – said that they use technology to help them monitor absence, proof that most are tapping into the time-saving potential of effective software solutions. Most people, it seems, are good at recording data and using it to react accordingly.
However, more tellingly, a majority (52.98%) also think technology could do more to help monitor and prevent absenteeism.
This demonstrates the fact that people in HR know that the technology and processes they use have more to offer and want to tap into its potential.
They’re right too. The technology that many businesses now use offers a simple and effective way to collect the data we need in HR, but this data must now be put to better use.
With genuine predictive analytics, businesses could identify and even pre-empt trends, and use data to inform a strategic approach to absenteeism.
The technology we use is already sophisticated enough. The challenge for us in HR is to become stronger in the way we analyse, interpret and use the data we can now tap into.
Businesses with a proactive approach to absenteeism should have a workplace health and wellness strategy in place that sets out how companies will look after the health and happiness of their employees, and the economic case for this comes from the reduced level of absenteeism and the financial cost savings this brings.
These strategies should become the hallmark of progressive employers and a successful HR department. They should, in particular, look at the role of the working environment and how this can play its part in helping or harming absence levels and the smart use of holidays and flexitime, in a way that could benefit both employee and employer.
So, to their credit, businesses are doing well in using technology in a smart way to monitor and react to absenteeism within their organisation.
If they can evolve their working practices, embrace the potential of data analytics and set in place some positive, proactive and preventative measures, then they can move on to the next level and really improve performance.
If, as businesses, we all do our bit then that £18 billion productivity problem should reduce too. The politicians debating at the highest level can thank us all later.