When absence masquerades as sickness: A MatchFit perspective

By Bradley Honnor

It’s a fact of life that people get sick. And as employers, we have a duty of care to ensure that the terms and conditions of employment look after people’s wellbeing; that they don’t feel pressurised into coming to work when they’re unwell. How well we support them is a reflection of the organisational culture.

But it’s important to differentiate between genuine sickness absence, and absence in general, as the latter is often a manifestation of a deeper issue. Managing sickness absence is the straightforward one to deal with, as long as there is a robust policy in place, which is well communicated. Where things get more complicated, is when the absence is not a direct result of ill-health – and this is where we find that a lot of organisations and managers are not dealing with the issue very well.

Often it can be the elephant in the room – everyone in the team knows that the individual is off again, but the leadership is not dealing with the problem. And that has an impact on the culture of the organisation. It makes people feel frustrated that they’re doing the extra work, and taking the responsibility of the people that are off, and the resentment builds.

Not managing that effectively can lead to a negative feedback loop. A company might start off being very sympathetic and supportive of absence, but then when this is taken advantage of, they become less supportive. Then the genuinely sick are impacted and it spirals from there.

We’ve worked with an organisation that had exactly this problem. When new starters joined, they were told in their induction that they’d get their 25 days holiday pay, but 10 days sick leave as well.   So those 10 days were assumed to be part of the annual leave entitlements. It became an acceptable norm because everybody did it. On some days, 50% of the staff were off! Imagine the impact that was having on the remaining staff.

The impacts of absence

The most obvious impact of a high degree of staff absence is reduced productivity. When staff are absent, productivity often dips. Tasks get delayed, and it’s a real challenge to keep things moving smoothly. Coupled with this, the workload for others increases. Team members end up shouldering extra responsibilities. It’s tough on them and can lead to burnout. Customer service can take a hit. Reduced staff means slower response times and potentially unhappy customers.

This in turn leads to problems with morale. Frequent absences can really dampen team spirit. It’s something we’ve seen first-hand, and it’s a delicate issue to manage.

There’s a direct financial impact too. Covering overtime or bringing in temp staff isn’t cheap, and it adds up. Workflow and project timelines suffer. Delays become common, and it disrupts the rhythm that teams and organisations work hard to establish.

From a management perspective, it’s a real headache. It’s time-consuming and stressful to keep reorganising work schedules, and the quality of work can drop. Staff covering for others might not always match the usual standards, or have the time to do the jobs thoroughly, cutting corners just to get them done.

Ultimately, over time, business reputation suffers, especially as service levels drop.

So why is absence frequently not addressed?

In some workplace cultures, a certain level of absenteeism is almost accepted – changing this mindset is challenging. Often, absenteeism stems from deeper issues, like workplace dissatisfaction, but the root causes can be overlooked. Addressing the symptoms, not the cause, is a common mistake. But without good monitoring systems, it can be hard to spot and address patterns in absenteeism effectively.

Often, the problem is simply a lack of training. Many leaders aren’t trained in handling the formal processes of absenteeism, and often aren’t even aware of the support framework that, for instance, ACAS offers. It’s a gap in management skills that MatchFit often encounter, but it’s actually very straightforward to rectify.

More complex is the issue of avoiding confrontation. Confronting absenteeism means tough conversations, and some managers shy away from this to avoid conflict. However, this can also be addressed with the appropriate training to give managers skills and confidence in this area. An additional outcome that we often witness is that the manager finds their new skills empowering. They start to enjoy this part of their role more, because being able to have tricky but trust-based conversations has further, positive ramifications for developing high-performing teams.

It’s not unusual for a fear of legal repercussions to paralyse decision-making. Without clear policies, it’s tough to tackle absenteeism. MatchFit have worked in organisations where this has been a significant barrier. This might due to a lack of resources such as HR support, which can make managing absenteeism seem daunting.

Sometimes, however, managers simply underestimate the impact. They see it as a minor issue and don’t realise how much absenteeism is affecting their team. Managers are busy, and dealing with the issue falls by the wayside due to other pressing tasks.

So what can be done?

Firstly, how well do the HR policies and procedures stack up? Are they regularly reviewed and updated? Is the HR department fully-versed in ACAS guidelines and law?

Then, how well is this communicated? Does every manager know how and where to access support and information? If they’re not accessing it, why not?

Where gaps are identified, outsourcing to a consultancy such as MatchFit can save an organisation a great deal of money. For example, we were able to save one client £120,000, simply by training them to manage their absence effectively!

There are many fears and misconceptions around tackling absenteeism. But if the appropriate support is in place and the processes are followed correctly, then it need not be the costly headache it often becomes.

If you’d like to learn more about our MatchFit programmes, take a look at our information pages here, or why not get in touch? [email protected]