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Absence Management: why policy alone is not the answer

Absence management is a key priority for most organisations due to the costs involved and potential impact. The focus for organisations that wish to reduce absence is often on the policy framework for managing absence. But there are often deep-rooted cultural barriers which are not addressed by a policy framework alone.

For example, a health care organisation was finding that, despite implementing a new framework to manage staff absence, sickness levels continued to be too high. After reviewing some key absenteeism metrics, it was clear to us that considerable disparities existed across different departments. This indicated that the policy framework was not necessarily the root cause. There were other reasons why sickness absence was excessive, some of which were cultural. These included:

  • People viewing sickness absence more as an entitlement to take, rather than a safety net provision when struck down by illness. Each department had its own values, norms and behaviours, and a culture of absenteeism had grown up where staff in these departments were clearly taking advantage of the system.

  • Management as poor role models. The data showed there was often a direct relationship between the sickness absence levels of managers and their teams. Role modelling is part and parcel of the way organisations function. Employees watch their managers and leaders carefully and respond to the cues they perceive regarding appropriate behaviour, and some managers were inadvertently encouraging unnecessary absence.

  • Failure to implement policy. Managers were clearly busy, but some were able to prioritise absence management, whilst others were not. Those managers that understood the importance of their role in avoiding and managing absence were able to maintain attendance of their teams at acceptable levels.

Having identified the causes of the sickness problem, we were in a suitable position to help the organisation do something about it. But changing an entrenched culture is the toughest task that organisations face. To do so, they must win the hearts and minds of the people involved, and that takes influence. In their book ‘Encouraging organisations to change: The influence model’ Keller and Price identify four things that need to happen to influence people to change. We used this as a practical framework for helping the organisation understand and identify the actions required to tackle the absence issue in an effective way.

  1. Understanding. People needed to understand what the organisation wanted them to do differently and why. This meant educating managers and staff on the cost of absenteeism. Not just the direct costs of overtime and contractors to cover the work of those absent; but also the indirect costs of poorer patient care and idle equipment, and the psychological costs to those who have to manage and cover for absent colleagues.

  2. Reinforcement. Systems and processes needed to reinforce the behaviours required. This meant reviewing and revising various people related practices so that they supported the policy framework for absence. In particular, performance management and management information were used to drive accountability for attendance of both employees and managers. And recruitment, induction and promotion were used to reinforce the expectation that 100% attendance was required.

  3. Leadership Development. Managers needed the right skills and knowledge to implement the policy framework. This meant providing clear information, support and advice to the line management on what to do when, and how to do it. And also providing training in counselling skills so that managers were equipped to confront absenteeism in an appropriate way. This gave them the confidence and authority to act, but managers also needed to know that the organisation would support them in the difficult disciplinary issues that might occur.

  4. Role Modelling. People needed to see leaders and managers role modelling the required behaviours. This meant making sure that management are held to account for their personal performance, as regards both their own absence and the absence of those who report to them. And ensuring that the absence management framework is applied consistently across the organisation. In this way, the whole chain of management takes day-to-day responsibility – and is accountable for – meeting attendance goals.

Changing an organisational culture that has taken years to develop is not easy. But using all four levers together enabled this organisation to maximise the chances of getting new patterns of behaviour to stick and bringing sickness absence down to acceptable levels. The key is embedding the change in the fabric of the organization and providing staff with plenty of cues about the type of behaviour that’s appropriate.


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