Absent without leave

01 January 2000
Absent without leave

Chambermaid Maria Fernandes returned to work in May after an industrial tribunal decided she had been unfairly dismissed. Fernandes took out her case against Imperial London Hotels after she was dismissed at the end of last year, following several bouts of sickness absence.

The tribunal's decision, and its subsequent order that Fernandes be reinstated, hung on the lack of formal procedures implemented by the company at the time to monitor and deal with staff absences.

According to recent reports, sickness absence is an epidemic that businesses can ill afford. British industry loses about 187 million working days every year to staff absence, at a cost of more than £12b.

The actual cost is probably much greater once the knock-on effects of staff absence, the consequent fall in productivity, the cost of employing temporary staff, overtime bills, damage to colleagues' morale and the loss of customers are all taken into account. The scale of the problem in 1996 was the equivalent to every employee taking 8.4 days off sick in addition to their annual holiday entitlement.

Yet few companies in the hospitality industry have formal sickness absence procedures, which would provide them with valuable information about patterns of absence and ensure fair treatment.

"They usually take the disciplinary route, and I have known cases where people on sick leave have been continuously telephoned at home," claims Dave Turnbull, an official of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). "Often, termination of contract is the route employers choose to deal with long-term ill health."

Surprisingly, perhaps, many managers choose to believe their staff when they say they have to take the day off because they are unwell. A study by the Confederation of British Industry reported that, in 98% of cases, managers said they believed most sickness absence was genuine. A separate study, by the Industrial Society, revealed that managers always believed the reasons given for absence.

According to the Industrial Society, the most common reasons for absence recorded on sickness certification forms are colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches, back problems, and stress and personal problems. Managers believe that, while colds and the flu may account for most sick days, stress and personal problems are the next most common reasons, followed by sickness of a family member or childcare problems, or low morale.

"Managers should create a culture of trust at work, where questions such as stress and family responsibilities can be discussed openly," says Tony Morgan, chief executive of the Industrial Society.

The Industrial Society reported that, although nearly half of employers failed to calculate the cost of absence to their business, larger organisations were the most likely to do so. The fewer employees an organisation had, the less likely it was to calculate the cost of absenteeism.

"Economies of scale definitely play a part. Larger companies tend to have greater resources to deal with these situations," says David Potts, human resources director at City Centre Restaurants. "I used to come across lots of smaller companies that found it difficult to deal with absence problems because their workforces were such that [problems] arose so infrequently that a policy was not considered necessary."

While keeping records is a useful management tool to analyse patterns of absence, there is little evidence to suggest that it is an effective way of keeping absence levels in check. The CBI report indicates that giving line managers absence statistics is one of the least-effective methods, alongside return-to-work interviews. Another method that has proved less than effective is the attendance bonus. The few organisations that have introduced a system of rewarding employees for good attendance records tend to have higher rates of absence.

"You shouldn't have to pay people extra just for turning up at work, and in those cases where the illness is genuine people may feel they have to come in so as not to be penalised," says Michael Gottlieb, proprietor of Smollensky's Restaurants and chairman of the Restaurateurs' Association of Great Britain.

Research reveals that other monetary incentives to maintain a clean attendance record are not particularly effective, either. Employees in the majority of restaurants are unlikely to benefit from an occupational sick-pay scheme; some may not even receive statutory sick pay. But larger restaurant and hotel companies operate a sick-pay scheme that some use as a lever to persuade people to return to work.

"People are put under pressure to return to work. In many hotels, it is up to the manager whether or not the employee will receive sick pay, and it is not unknown for them to tell people they will not be getting it, as a way of making them feel obliged to come back," reports Turnbull of the TGWU.

Yet companies that operate a system of waiting days before an employee's entitlement to occupational sick pay comes into force appear to fare no better in reducing absence than those who do not. Where waiting days are operated, according to the CBI, the average absence rate is 1.5 days higher per employee.

Gottlieb prefers the team-working approach to managing sick leave. If each member of staff is part of a team, they will know that their absence will cause problems for colleagues. "It is part of our culture that you turn up for work. All the staff work as a team and know that someone will have to be called in to replace them if they are off sick," he says.

The number of companies operating team-working has risen by nearly a third in the two years since the CBI's 1994 absence report. This may indicate the shift towards flexible working, but the CBI survey shows team-working is a powerful deterrent against unnecessary sick days. Staff who work in teams take, on average, fewer days off sick.

However, this effect is a by-product of the decision to introduce teams. In both the CBI and Industrial Society reports, businesses were accused of not taking the problem of absenteeism seriously enough. Not keeping track of sick days, not requiring some form of explanation for absence - through self-certification or a doctor's certificate - and not discussing long-term problems with staff, can create a culture in which absence becomes acceptable. Employees can even see absence as an entitlement on top of annual leave.

"Management at all levels should show that they are concerned about absenteeism, that they are not going to have the wool pulled over their eyes, but will treat staff well. Otherwise, the culture of considering sick leave to be an entitlement sets in," says Potts of City Centre Restaurants. "Although it can be quite difficult to get junior managers and supervisors to talk to people about their absence, they won't find out what the real problems are unless they do."

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