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Absence is an opportunity – tips for managing it

Every organisation in one time or another will experience absence. One day, two days, long term sick – it’s often a reality of a business.

It’s estimated that over 141 million working days are lost because of sickness or injury every year, equivalent to 4.4 days per person working. Injuries, musculoskeletal, general sickness (colds/coughs/headaches), as well as poor mental health all feature in the list of top reasons for absence.

But did you know that 95% of employees who experience poor mental health will give a different reason for their absence? So when you look at your absentee data and complete that analysis to identify themes and trends, there might be a whole heap of themes that the data isn’t showing you.

In the UK, poor mental health is costing the economy nearly £20 BILLION POUNDS! We know it’s a problem, let’s not ignore the facts here. Whilst cynics will say that absence is an inevitability – perhaps our roles is not dismissing absence as an inherent nature of the workplace, but instead using these situations as an opportunity to create better support for those who are struggling – and keep them healthy in work.

In order to do that, we’ve got to get to challenge some of the roadblocks!

Roadblocks to overcome in managing absence

  • Too many businesses accept an annual absence percentage based on run rate.

They run year to year accepting the absenteeism as an inherent and systematic part of their business. It remains unchallenged unless the percentage of absence rises above the ‘budgeted’ amount.

And therein lies the first problem. If our only trigger to take action is reactive, we will forever be chasing our tail. Once that absence period is past, there is very little you are able to do to influence positively. The second problem is f we accept that that’s the way it is because that’s the way it’s always been, then we accept mediocracy and the value we have for our employees is misplaced.

  • Failing to see absence as a symptom of a poor environment and culture

It’s easy to view absence as though it is isolated from the business and in doing so, manage it as a transaction. It’s treated as though the reason exists independently. Absence affects the business but seemingly absence isn’t affected by the business or is it? 90% of those who are struggling with their health, will find their work affected. Underestimating the influence of the business culture and environment on health and wellbeing will not effectively reduce absenteeism in their business. Period.

Treat a return to work as an opportunity

Return to works can often be perceived as a tick box exercise, something that shows we complied with the absence policy. But a return to work should be so much more than that. It’s not about the policy, the forms or the absence management processes. These are guidelines to guide us.

This is about the person.

It’s an opportunity to create understanding, show empathy, develop trust between the manager and their employee, demonstrate that support can and will be provided, to show you care.

The time you do it, the space you create, what you say and how you say it matters. It all helps to show your staff that they and their health is important, that their health is important to YOU, that you care, that you want to support them and are prepared to support them. YOU represent the company.

What’s the best time?

Complete it within the first hour on their return to work. Part of the conversation needs to determine if they are feeling ready to be back in work. If you do it 6 hours after they started – it’s a bit late if they aren’t!!

If you aren’t able to complete it as their line manager, there needs to be someone who can step in. Whoever that is needs to do the same thing because we are then extending trust across the wider business.

Space you create

Finding a quiet space which is not in ear shot of others seems like a pretty basic requirement. You’d be surprised how often these discussions happen in front of others under the excuse that there weren’t any meeting rooms. It doesn’t have to be a meeting room. Of course that helps – BUT there are always places where you can be discrete.

What to say and how to say it

This is the individuals’ time – not yours. This is their time to talk and once you demonstrate the importance you place on health, that you show them they are valued, employees are more likely to start opening up.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Whilst a guideline or checklist is great, it can often become the central point of a discussion, going from one section to the next, monotonously. You can fill the check list in later. The purpose of the discussion is to focus solely on the employee, how they’ve been feeling and how you can support them.
  • Use open questions. Here’s some examples:
  • How are you feeling
  • How can I support you (don’t use WE – I shows responsibility and ownership. It also shows that YOU take it seriously)
  • What support can I put in place throughout today that would help you?

Acknowledge and recognise the importance of being unwell for that person. Examples:

  • I understand.
  • That sounds very difficult
  • I am sorry to hear you were so unwell

Encourage conversation using examples like:

  • Tell me how you’re feeling now
  • Talk to me about how you’re feeling about being in work today
  • Let’s explore how I can support you

This will encourage the individual to talk – and from there you can respond using a mixture of these techniques. The key is, rather than focusing on what you say, focus on the person, because once you switch your focus from you to them, what you say becomes far more natural and less forced. A good way to tackle this is to imagine a spotlight and rather than that spotlight on you, move it round to the person Infront of you.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in us trying to say the right thing, that the value of this moment is lost.

Once you have spent time talking, its time to come up with a series of ways that you can support the individual. This should happen naturally in the conversation. Things to consider are what temporary adjustments can be made to support and what support might be required. This should always be part of the conversation, but again, it should be led by the employee and guided by the manager.

Don’t forget to plan a follow up and agree when that will happen. This is of course dependent upon the circumstances, the reasonable adjustment and the support that Is put in place.

It’s an opportunity

Return to works, individuals returning from sickness are opportunities to create a safe space for someone to say they are struggling and for the business to demonstrate that it will and can support them. It is not a paper, or tick box exercise. If you get this bit right you can influence how that person feels, you can take proactive steps to mitigate any further absence and when you get back to your desk, you can do all the necessary paperwork AND categorise it the right way for the absence data.

YOU can positively influence what happens next.

If you think this is an area your team may benefit from coaching or you have any questions, just drop me a message through LinkdIn or via [email protected]

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