Absence is a big problem across the industry. It seems particularly acute on a Monday morning. In some call centres up to 10% are absent at any one time.
Here are 16 tips to help manage the issue…
1. Create an absence policy
If you don’t have one already, create an absence policy to balance employee and employer needs. These written guidelines are for your employees and should set out holiday entitlements, procedures for reporting absence and terms and conditions of employment.
When compiling an absence policy it is often best to do so in consultation with line managers, employee representatives, and trade unions if necessary. Policies must spell out employees’ rights and obligations when taking time off work; they must also contain any information on terms and conditions relating to incapacity for work due to sickness or injury, including any provision for sick pay. Items you might wish to include are:
- Permitted time off
- How employees should notify you in case of sickness, lateness, etc.
- When to submit a medical certificate (or self certificate)
- Sick-pay arrangements
- Whether employees are required to attend a return-to-work interview after absence
- Health and safety, drug, alcohol, grievance and discipline policies
- What happens when employees are non compliant with the absence policy
- It is also advisable to detail who is responsible for keeping employees’ attendance records, and who will have access
2. Communicate the policy
There’s little point in having an absence policy if you don’t communicate it to employees, so publicise the policy through team briefings, leaflets, information in pay packets, handbooks, intranets, etc.
3. Enforce and manage the absence policy
Any absence policy needs to be monitored and enforced consistently and fairly throughout the organisation to curb unscheduled absence and unauthorised sick days. More than half of employed adults believe their work performance is negatively impacted when attendance policies are not fairly enforced.
When managing short-term absence you may need to consider the following interventions:
- Review of individual attendance
- Return-to-work interviews
- Involving line managers and occupational health professionals
- Restricting sick pay
- Disciplinary procedures for unacceptable levels of absence
When managing long-term absence it is vital that you have a formal strategy in place to help employees get back to work after a prolonged period of absence. You should consider the following:
- For serious long-term absence obtain Access to Medical Records from employees’ Medical Advisor to assess ways in which the company can assist in the return to work
- Return-to-work interviews
- Changes to work patterns and environment
- Rehabilitation programmes
- Occupational health environment
- Line management involvement
- Restricting sick pay
4. Return-to-work interviews
These interviews can be useful in identifying absence problems at an early stage. You should conduct return-to-work interviews in order to:
- Welcome employees back
- Check they are well enough to be at work
- Update employees on any news while they were away
- Identify the cause of the absence
- Find out whether they have a disability and whether the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 apply, such as making a reasonable adjustment
- Discuss any help you might provide to ease the employee’s return to work
- Establish if their sickness is work related and whether there are any health and safety issues you need to address.
Interviews should be conducted sensitively to find out if there are any underlying issues such as domestic problems. Remember the employee might be building up to revealing personal information about themselves, so find a quiet private place to hold the discussion.
Many managers shy away from return-to-work interviews for fear of a confrontational show down. Prepare before the interview and think about the following:
- Questions you might ask – open-ended ones will get the conversation flowing
- Have employee records at hand
- Consider how the employee feels
- Your body language – be sympathetic
- Have there been any patterns in absence?
- Plan a getting back to work programme if the employee has been away for a long period
- Update the employee about any changes since they’ve been absent
- You might have to take disciplinary action if you are unhappy with the explanations for the absences or poor timekeeping
- Have an open mind, agree a shared action plan where possible, but don’t make any hasty decisions at the meeting
5. Provide incentives for excellent attendance
In large organisations, time and attendance systems are an invaluable tool for tracking and reporting on attendance levels. Many organisations effectively use perfect attendance bonuses or set targets as an incentive to reduce absence levels.
6. Be realistic
Sometimes people really do need to take some ‘mental health’ time out that simply cannot be planned. Allow employees to take a maximum number of days each year as ‘Duvet Days’ at short notice. This will likely improve morale and get better results from your employees in the long term.
7. Consider unpaid leave or options to buy more holiday time
Planned absence is always easier for a business to manage than unscheduled absence. Offer employees the opportunity to book unpaid leave up to a maximum number of days or buy additional holidays at the start of the year.
8. Working conditions
Provide other incentives to encourage good attendance such as pleasant working conditions, ensuring specialist/ergonomic equipment is provided where it is needed or healthcare and counselling facilities.
9. Make controlling absence a business priority
There’s no excuse not to be in control of absence. Business tools are available to control and monitor absence levels and trends – you can even set the parameters to alert you to all unscheduled absence the moment it happens, not several days after the event.
10. Continuous feedback
An absence policy is something that should be reviewed regularly. Collect feedback from employees and update your policy to suit your employee and business needs.
Simon Macpherson is Senior Director of Business Developments & Operations at Kronos
11. Formal absence process
Using a formal process of written and verbal warnings seems to have some effect. Some people are not scared by this, however.
Once someone has been sacked for absences it does tend to send shock waves through the call centre for a period of time.
13. Sickness bonus
One scheme that seems to work is that of a sickness bonus. If you have not taken any time off for illness in 12 months then you get given an extra day of holiday. Many people feel very proud about this.
14. Peer pressure can work
If a team realise that they have to take on extra workload due to an absence they can often put indirect pressure on an employee to improve absence.
15. Absence call-backs
Quite a common scheme is to use call-backs. The employee has to phone in sick before 9.30am. A more senior team manager would then call them back later in the day to find out how they were feeling. In one case the phone back had to be before 11.30am and in another case the phone call could be at any time during the day.
The best method is to follow a standard script for all call-backs. This ensures that the message is consistent and helps to avoid the claim that it could be seen as bullying people back to work.
Another variation is to ask the person to call you back later in the day to let you know how they are getting on.
It was felt that this helped to discourage people taking the day off as a holiday and kept them at home. It was also noted that you had to be careful that this would not be seen as bullying.
A couple of people tried using a call-answering service staffed by real nurses, but found that absence levels actually rose. Patient confidentiality then got in the way of finding out the real reasons for absence.
If someone is off on self-certified sickness ask them to phone in every day that they are off.
16. Duvet Days
One call centre has introduced a Duvet Days scheme. Called “Personal Choice Days”, you are allowed to take up to three days per year that come out of annual leave. You have to phone in by 9.30am and there are a maximum number of days that can be taken.
Some people try to book these days in advance but they are encouraged if possible to take them as scheduled annual leave.
They view the scheme as a real success story as they feel that people are more empowered. It has cut sickness and absence down by around 40%. Anecdotally, people who have a hangover are then able to take a Duvet Day, rather than having to take a sickness day.
However, they have had to limit the number of Duvet Days as there can be problems the day after some major sporting events.
Jonty Pearce is the Editor, Call Centre Helper