An increasing recognition for the vital role of line managers in absence management is not being matched with employer support for them to do so most effectively. This is the headline finding from the 2016 CIPD/Simplyhealth  Absence Management survey and signals an important call to action for employers.

Our survey of over 1,000 HR professionals asked what the top 3 most effective approaches for managing both short and long-term absence are in their organisation. This year more survey respondents said giving line managers primary responsibility for managing absence and giving sickness absence information to line managers were among their most effective approaches.

However, we also found that fewer employers are providing training and support for line managers in absence management. Just 44% of organisations told us they train managers to handle short-term absence, a drop from 52% in 2015. And just 38% said managers are trained to manage long-term absence (down from 45% in 2015). The survey also found decreases in the provision of tailored support for line managers, for example through online support or coaching from HR. Just one-fifth (20%) of employers provide tailored support to manage short-term absence, a drop from over a quarter (26%) in 2015. And for long-term absence the figure is only marginally higher that for short-term absence at a quarter (25%) (a drop from 34% in 2015).

Ensuring line managers feel both capable and confident to effectively manage absence is essential as they are usually the first point of call for employees when they go off sick. Of course, training needs to ensure managers are able to take appropriate action with the minority of people who may be taking advantage of an organisation’s sick pay scheme. But attention also needs to focus on the wellbeing needs of the majority and on proactive action to help people stay in work. People need to feel able to raise concerns or issues before they become a real problem and know they will be supported.

Line managers are most likely to understand the demands of the job roles in their team so need to understand the importance of either making reasonable adjustments to enable people to stay in work or to facilitate an effective return to work after sick leave. They are also in prime position to spot early warning signs of potential issues and in regular one-to-ones should be asking employees how they are doing. However, managers often worry about what they can and can’t say to people within sensitive or difficult conversations, which makes training and coaching essential to ensure they do have these conversations and they do so most effectively.

Headline issues to focus on

The Absence Management survey highlighted four prominent health and well-being issues for UK organisations which require more focused attention if we are to make headway in addressing them.

  • Stress

    Stress has, once again, topped the list of the most common causes of long-term absence and is the second most common cause of short-term absence after minor illness. The top three causes of stress at work are reported to be workload, non-work factors (relationships and family) and management style. The public sector is twice as likely as the private sector to cite considerable organisation change/restructuring among their top three causes of stress at work.The main ways employers are attempting to identify and reduce stress at work are staff surveys, flexible working options/improved work-life balance, risk assessments/stress audits and training for line managers to more effectively identify and manage stress in their team.
  • Mental health problems

    Around two-fifths (41%) of survey respondents say they’ve seen an increase over the past 12 months in the number of reported mental health problems in their organisation. This figure has remained relatively constant since 2010; we saw a significant jump from 21% in the 2009 survey to 38% in 2010. This timing marked the onset of the recession, but may also partly reflected people being gradually more prepared to disclose mental health problems. Initiatives such as TimetoChange have made significant strides in decreasing the stigma – informed employer action can help to further this cause.

    What’s clear from the survey results is that organisations are better at providing support when an issue emerges, rather than actively promoting good mental health. Just 32% of HR professionals surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that senior leaders support the organisation’s focus on mental wellbeing through their actions and behaviour. And only 29% said they believe managers in their organisation are confident to have sensitive discussions with staff and signpost them to expert mental health sources of help if needed.
  • Long hours' culture

    This year we saw a notable increase in the number of HR professionals telling us that a long hours’ culture is the norm in their organisation. This finding is concerning given that workload was reported to be the top cause of stress at work and that we found a long hours’ culture to be somewhat associated with reported increases in mental health problems.
  • Presenteeism

    Similar to previous years, around three-in-ten (29%) employers have seen an increase in presenteeism – people coming to work ill – over the past year. We found an association between presenteeism and both stress-related absence and mental health problems. More than half of those who had noticed an increase in presenteeism also reported an increase in stress-related absence compared, with less than a third of those who hadn’t. They were also twice as likely to report an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression (61% vs. 30%).

    More employers this year reported taking action to discourage presenteeism (2016: 48%; 2015: 31%; 2014: 32%). However, those who said they’ve seen an increase in people coming to work ill were not more likely than those who haven’t to be taking action. Interestingly, those organisations that focus more on wellbeing were somewhat less likely to report increases in presenteeism.

Read the full Absence Management survey report.

About the author

Jill Miller, Senior Policy Adviser, Diversity and Inclusion

Jill is Senior Policy Adviser for Diversity and Inclusion at the CIPD. Her work focuses on the areas of gender, age and neurodiversity and she has recently led work on race inclusion, managing drug and alcohol misuse at work, and supporting employees through fertility treatment, pregnancy loss and still birth. Earlier in her career, Jill specialised in small business growth through good people management and employee wellbeing.

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