Tackling sickness absence

Is sickness dogging your management style?  Clare Hollett of Blue Sky Consulting prescribes a cure for managers who feel run down by absenteeism in their team.
Over the past ten years I have worked at many call centres on a wide range of projects. These projects spanned various industries and were all very different, but were linked in one particular way. In every case, clients wanted to make an impact – either directly or indirectly – on staff absence due to sickness. I have seen and heard various senior managers of call centres who are frustrated and flummoxed as to why their sickness levels are still above target, despite investment and varied interventions on their part.

Many times I have heard them say: “We have invested huge amounts in our management information systems and in our infrastructures but we are still failing to achieve target.” In my experience in designing and implementing ways to conquer the problem of absenteeism, I have come to the conclusion that investing in management information systems (MIS) and infrastructure alone is never going to have a major, lasting impact. To make a real difference, businesses should also focus on one vital ingredient: their managers.

The true cost of absenteeism

Before I further explain my thinking on absence management, we should reflect on why absenteeism is worth carefully managing in the first place. The latest Employee Absence Survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) states that the average cost of sickness absence is 567 per employee per year – 9% higher than the previous year. When calculating the cost of sickness absence, many companies  take in to account only sick pay. They do not include the cost of replacement labour, overtime or reduced performance. This suggests that where the cost of absence management is calculated, it is likely to be underestimated.

Many of the companies I have worked with recently have impressive tools and infrastructures around managing absence – and their managers often have sound understanding of these tools – but still the sickness figure remains high. That is because acquiring and understanding the tools is not enough to cause change. To cause a change, the effective and consistent application of these tools is vital. This means taking the information and practices and applying them to achieve a tangible difference at an individual, team and department level. And who is the person that will successfully or unsuccessfully apply the information and practices?

The team manager

Recently I was in a large organisation listening to ten team managers, who oversee more than 100 agents between them, as they discussed the issue of sickness in their teams. There was no accountability at team manager level for sickness figures and they felt it was something they could not affect. It was the agents’ fault. The team managers were bereft of ideas on how to tackle the problem. Their discussion was based on whether or not the agents who called in sick were telling the truth. All their effort, focus and energy was spent determining if that agent was lying, whether they sounded ill or whether they had been spotted in town at lunchtime.

This considerable effort, focus and energy could have been better spent on making sure their team had a context for their work and understood how valuable their contribution was to the company. It could have been spent setting stretching targets and creating exciting competitions. It could also have been channelled into coaching those team members who were at work and into validating, rewarding and celebrating those who are ‘doing things right’. They could have been making work a place where agents wanted to be because it is interesting and exciting. In short, effort, focus and energy that could have been spent on performance management activities.

I have observed teams where team managers are effectively and confidently using performance management tools. Not only is sickness low, but other performance indicators and targets are regularly achieved, such as customer satisfaction, sales conversion and customer retention. Furthermore, the agents themselves are generally happier and morale is high.

Real-life reasons to review sickness absence

In one company where sickness was a problem I ran an agent focus group in order to find out what the staff themselves thought about the issue.

One sales agent, Ray, told me this story: “One night I went out with my team and got drunk. My team manager was there. The next day I had a hangover so I called in sick. Nothing happened to me. I still got paid. I would actually prefer my manager to be tougher around sickness. I should have been disciplined for that. If I was a manager, I would not put up with it. But because it happened, I have called in sick a few times now.” The next day the impressive MIS report showed that Ray was indeed off sick. (Actually, a graph showed that he had had three Fridays off in the last two months.)

The company procedure required him to call the resource helpdesk before 9 a.m. to inform them of his sickness and fill in a form when he returned to work. Funnily enough, these things did not prevent Ray from doing the same thing a couple of weeks later. So I asked him what would stop him taking time off work due to ‘sickness’. His reply was very enlightening: “Well, the job is so dull. It is tedious. The team is really big so no one notices whether I am here or not. It doesn’t make much difference. My manager doesn’t actually talk to me that often, let alone about my sickness. If the job was more interesting and my manager showed more interest, I probably wouldn’t do it so much.”

In my opinion, the hammer that cracks the absence management nut is not to be found in tools or systems. It won’t be found through more policies, procedures and processes either. It can only be found in the team managers. And although impressive MIS and robust infrastructures may help, managers should be able to affect sickness figures positively without them. The key, of course, is effective, confident performance management. Why not try some of the following tips to see what a difference you can make?

Prevention tactics

Personally greet each member of staff as they start their shift.

Review performance with each member of staff at the end of the day and agree a plan for the following day.
Acknowledge and reward the right behaviours publicly. Staff want your attention. Give it to the people who are doing things right, not the people who are doing things wrong.

Create vision and understanding of each member of staff’s role and the value of their contribution.

Develop a reputation as a manager who deals swiftly and fairly with under-performance.

Be creative – develop a high energy environment where regular new beginnings and surprises are a reason for staff to come to work.

Deal with absence when it occurs – Speak to staff calling in sick personally. Let them know their contribution will be missed. Ask them about their workload and if they have any actions which need attending to. If they have only a minor bout of illness, ask if they will be in later. If they have self-inflicted illness – for example, a hangover – ask them how and when they will make up the time. Remain caring, professional and objective.

Dealing with persistent offenders

Be open, honest and direct – have an ‘essential communication’.

Be impartial.

Get HR advice early on; invoke HR procedures if appropriate.

Familiarise yourself with company and individual legal rights.

Published On: 13th Jan 2006 - Last modified: 11th Sep 2019
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