Attendance management: beyond the basics?

Absence from work has run at steady levels for many years in the UK. This is confirmed by the most recent survey evidence, which covers 1998. Absence is a significant cost for employers, and policies of monitoring and control are now widespread. However, in late 1999, more positive policies aimed at encouraging attendance rather than managing absence remain rare.

This feature looks at recent evidence on patterns of absence and at current management practice in attendance control. It does not review familiar facts (UK9705127F). It is, for example, well-known that absence is relatively high among blue-collar workers, for fairly obvious reasons. Lists of "causes" are also commonplace but of limited value in considering the significance of absence for managers and workers.

Patterns and trends

Estimates of absence rates are provided from surveys of firms by bodies including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Industrial Society, from the Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS) and from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). No clear distinction is made between all voluntary absence and absence due specifically to sickness. The WERS question, for example, refers to the percentage of work days "lost through employee sickness or absence".

The CBI's most recent estimates, for 1998, put the rate of absence at 3.7% of working time (or 8.5 days of absence per employee per year). The cost per worker was estimated at GBP 426 per year. The rate is broadly similar to estimates produced by the CBI since 1989. The Industrial Society puts the rate at 3.6%. The 1998 WERS (UK9811159F) reports a similar figure, of 4.1%, in workplaces with more than 25 employees. Since WERS respondents were reporting on a specific establishment, rather than a whole firm, their estimates are likely to be well-founded, and they thus usefully confirm the figures from the CBI and other sources. WERS also reports that 85% of workplaces kept records of "absenteeism", though only 27% set specific performance targets. Yet it remains notable that 15% of workplaces had no records, while in 19% the manager interviewed was unable to estimate the rate of absence. There is thus a significant minority of establishments in which the management of attendance appears to remain rudimentary.

Self-reports from the Labour Force Survey provide higher rates than those given above, stated to be 4.7% for the autumn of 1998. However, the basis of the calculation appears to be different from the other studies; it includes as absence days of illness on which the employee was not scheduled to work. A different method of calculation (taking the number of people saying they were absent for a specified number of days, and expressing the days lost as a proportion of days scheduled for work) would put the rate at 3.1%. This figure is close to that from recent findings published in Labour Market Trends (August 1999) reporting a project examining trends in absence from 1971 to 1997, using the General Household Survey and the LFS. The results point to a fall in absence from 1973 to 1983 with rates thereafter being remarkably steady (the rates, for full-time employees only, calculated from the LFS fluctuated between 3.1% and 3.3% between 1984 and 1997).

Convincing explanations for these trends remain to be produced. Some forces that might reduce the rate of absence can be suggested.

  1. The professionalism of the personnel management function is likely to have risen. WERS reports that the proportion of workplaces with personnel specialists rose during the 1990s.
  2. Several surveys have reported that attention to attendance management has risen since the late 1980s. A general impetus has been competitive pressure and the need to control labour costs. A particular one was the introduction of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) in 1982. This replaced the direct payment of state sickness benefit with a system whereby employers paid SSP and reclaimed the costs from the state. SSP offers a basic level of income (at a weekly rate of GBP 57.70 in April 1999) and is thus much lower than average earnings. Direct financial costs to employers were not the issue, and in fact in the early years of SSP employers received more than they paid out. The indirect stimulus of having to keep records was more important. In recent years, cost considerations may have grown: the costs of SSP were gradually transferred to employers, albeit with a compensating reduction in employment taxes, and are now borne almost entirely by the employer.
  3. There are periodic reports of concern about absence levels and attempts to institute stricter controls. In 1998, the government expressed concern about absence levels in the public sector as a whole, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a target of a 20% reduction over a three-year period. Concerns about illegitimate absence have led to investigations in a range of industries including the police service and the railways.

Pressures tending to raise or maintain absence levels include the widely-discussed issues of stress and long hours (eg a survey by the MSF trade union in 1997 reporting that 80% of people surveyed saw stress as a large problem, and reported that their own levels of stress had risen - UK9710173N). The WERS survey of employees found that 40% felt that they "never had enough time to get their work done" while 23% reported worrying about their work outside working hours. It is also possible that the decline in collective means of giving a "voice" to employee concerns has had an effect. Research has, however, never found a simple, direct relationship between collective action on the one hand and individual action such as absence or quitting on the other. It is more likely that an indirect effect has been present, with the decline in "voice" mechanisms making it more difficult to resolve difficulties between management and workers, which may in turn lead to pressures on individuals that in some circumstances can produce absence.

Attendance policies

The pressures towards rising absence might well have increased rates of absence without the presence of control measures. Studies by bodies including Incomes Data Services ("Sick pay schemes", IDS Study 660, December 1998) and the Institute for Employment Studies ("Attendance management", S Bevan and S Hayday, IES Report 353, 1998) survey current practice, generally in large organisations. On sick pay schemes, findings point to:

  • a growing harmonisation of terms between different grades of staff, together with the growing inclusion of part-time workers;
  • giving workers entitlement to sick pay for between 13 and 52 weeks;
  • no overall tendency for schemes to be made more or less generous; and
  • the continued unpopularity of attendance bonuses (which have had periods in vogue, notably among some car manufacturing firms).

In practice, many workers in large firms will expect to receive full pay for any normal period of sickness. Overall, according to WERS, two-thirds of establishments offer sick pay at more than the statutory minimum level.

In the management of attendance, clear notification and monitoring procedures and the delegation of day-to-day responsibility to line managers appear to be common. The use of interviews on the return to work from absence also seems widespread. The use of specified "triggers" of levels of absence which will lead to some management action is rather less common. The IES study identified a total of 16 good-practice indicators, and found that 11 out of 30 organisations studied used at least 10 of these, with a further 15 using between five and nine. It concluded that policies that remained rare included changing working hours to allow workers with ill health to return to work and consideration of working conditions as a possible cause of absence.

Commentary

Absence continues to attract managerial attention even though rates of the behaviour seem to have changed little. Standard aspects of basic good practice in the payment of sick pay and the monitoring of absence seem established, though it is notable that debate rarely mentions discussing absence policies with employee representatives or involving employees actively in the process (except for scattered comments that some teamwork systems use peer pressure to promote attendance). Yet such basic practice is not universal: some firms offer only the statutory minimum sick pay, and others do not use devices such as return-to-work interviews. As the IES report stresses, more positive aspects directed at encouraging attendance through attention to the nature of the work environment, as opposed to the more reactive management of staff once they have gone absent, are very rare. (Paul Edwards, IRRU)

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