Getting to 2%: How to get the better of sickness absence

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by Sharon Broughton, Head of HR Consultancy

Sickness absence represents an annual loss of hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue for UK businesses every year. In fact, our recent sickness absence survey (of UK manufacturers, representing 61,705 employees combined) revealed the reported average sick pay cost per employee is £211, with two-fifths of businesses also reporting an increase in long-term sickness absence. With industry best practice hovering around 2% sickness absence, what are smart businesses doing to keep this cost to a minimum and tackle sickness absence effectively?


EEF’s HR consultants have decades of  practical experience in supporting clients to measure, reduce and tackle the root causes of absenteeism.  Here are a few of their recommendations based on their work with companies of all sizes from across the UK who have successfully reduced time lost to sickness absence per year.


Understand the problem

The best solutions come from the best data. Unfortunately, many companies do not have an accurate and consistent way of tracking sickness absence across sites and job roles. Sometimes this comes from lack of direction at the corporate level, sometimes from poor implementation at the site or line manager level or sometimes from a needlessly complex reporting system.

EEF recommends the correct application of the Bradford Factor Scores as a baseline for understanding sickness absence and putting in place data gathering schemes for the best data. For example, one company found its most common response in its sickness absence system was ‘Other’.  Our HR team worked with the company to develop a more effective way to gather more specific details on reasons for absence and more standardised Return to Work forms and interviews.

EEF also works with HR departments to

  • conduct a review of all recorded sickness absence
  • quantify the hours lost (and associated costs)
  • determine where absences occur most frequently (e.g. age, division, time of year, job role, site, shift, length of time with organisation) to identify patterns and problem areas
  • identify the root causes of absence, from processes and procedures to cultural issues
  • coach and develop line managers to understand the impact absence has across the business
  • implement an employee wellbeing audit


Think capability, not discipline

Many organisations cover sickness absence in their disciplinary policy. However, EEF recommends developing a ‘capability policy’ to better handle this issue. This policy should cover all areas of possible absence and reflect current employment legislation. We also recommend a separate policy for long-term absence.  

The policy should spell out exactly how managers should handle an ongoing sickness absence issue, such as what would ‘trigger’ the first written caution to an employee (e.g. 10 workings days or three or more occasions of absence during a rolling period of 12 months), what would trigger a final written caution and what would trigger a dismissal due to sickness absence.

Only half of respondents to our Sickness Absence Survey met their 2015 sickness absence target.

Setting up an Absence Management Review Group that reviews sickness absences on a monthly basis is good practice and does not require the involvement of trade union representatives.


Train the manager

Even if HR crafts the best possible sickness absence policies, if managers aren’t properly trained or haven’t fully bought into the importance of these policies, they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. Fortunately, there are a variety of related courses for managers, particularly those managing divisions or sites with high sickness absence rates, such as Managing Absence and Essential Management Skills.

EEF has also helped HR departments lead in-house training for the HR team and managers or even individual coaching and mentoring to assist particular individuals. This bespoke training could introduce specific KPIs and targets for managers to reduce absence. Linking these targets with performance management programmes and appraisals is key.   

Wellbeing & engagement at work

No sickness absence reduction programme would be complete without tackling some of the common causes of high levels of sickness absence. An Occupational Health and Wellbeing programme should be developed based on the findings of the initial problem solving data. For example, if a certain demographic of workers make up the largest portion of sickness absences, the wellbeing programme could target the root causes from flu vaccinations to stress management initiatives to an employee engagement strategy.

EEF provides sickness absence consultancy support to companies of all types across the UK. We also offer on-demand advice for our support package members.

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