In an absence crisis, HR must take a double-sided approach

People professionals need to work together with line managers to make sure their absence management capabilities are joined up, argues Pat Ashworth

HR and line managers have experienced huge learning curves when it comes to staffing shortages in recent months. But have recent events prepared the two sides to align their absence management capabilities for similar crises in the future? Or are management teams simply going through the motions to cope? For many, the latter remains true.

The pandemic leaves management uncertain. New variants can bring more staff shortages and while this is a focus for many organisations, other long-term absence issues are being ignored – ones that could be detrimental to staff health, managers’ ability to carry out effective redeployment processes, as well as avoid burnout in all team members and higher absence.

For example, it was reported that Covid-19 cases were largely to blame for 3 million absent employees in the first week of 2022, and mental health cases have also recently sent sickness-related absences surging. In fact, in 2021, GoodShape’s research also showed that declining mental health was the attributed cause of nearly a fifth of all sickness absences in the UK. 

At the same time, while working from home, many employees choose to carry on working through illnesses, instead of taking time off. In not taking time to rest, they risk their long-term physical and emotional health and potentially inhibit productivity too.

Despite the combined risks of Covid, mental health and presenteeism, employers are still not prioritising absence issues. In Aon’s Benefits and Trends Survey 2022, just 19 per cent of employers stated their organisation had placed an increased emphasis on absence management in the last 24 months – the bottom in a list of 14 HR priorities.

Rising challenges for line managers

With little effort placed on absence management, the challenges line managers face in this area are increasingly multifaceted. How can line managers support sick employees while also ensuring increased absences are not affecting productivity? How can they put checks in place to ensure that those who are working from home while ill are actually able to do their work efficiently? Can employees be relied on to accurately assess their own abilities to work? 

The latter question is even more pertinent when employees now have the capability to self-certify Covid related sickness leave for up to 28 days. How HR aligns its own absence management capabilities to that of line managers will be essential in answering these questions.

HR as the organisation’s moral compass

The response from organisations must be double-sided. When so much is changing, particularly with easing government Covid guidance, HR must provide structure for its organisations, acting as the moral compass and setting parameters that line managers can work within. Ultimately, the more structure HR can provide, the less chance of miscommunication and mismanagement of sickness absence policies by management teams.

Setting these parameters requires both HR teams and management to look at the business’s culture surrounding flexibility, remote working and health practices to understand how they can help people work or take absence leave in line with organisational practices. The parameters set should give advice and support on management’s duty of care as well as the expectations they have of employees surrounding wellbeing and presenteeism, whether at home or in the workplace.

At the same time, these parameters shouldn’t be set in stone – firstly because they require reviewing and tailoring as circumstances change. But beyond this, the double-sided approach allows for manager flexibility when implementing them among their own teams, creating outcomes that are beneficial for individual employees. 

For example, what may be beneficial for the health and productivity of someone who is sick but lives alone while home working may be different to an employee who is sick but has additional carer responsibilities. In the former, working while ill may provide a sense of purpose and be beneficial for their mental health if isolated; in the latter, rest may be needed to avoid burnout.

Flexibility within HR’s parameters helps line managers better fulfil their duty of care. By enacting guidelines on a case-by-case basis, management teams can support employees to make choices that are best for their own needs while in line with organisational expectations. Ultimately, this produces a stronger culture of trust and higher engagement too: employees should be allowed to make their own decisions without pressure from management, but line managers equally mustn’t encourage a culture of presenteeism. Indeed, HR can also support line managers by providing psychological support and emotional guidance, not least during high intensity periods, where they are still accountable to business objectives.

Overall, recent events have shown that an approach that’s too rigid and broad brush could do more harm than good to absence management processes. Line managers must be empowered to be flexible in their actions in order to deal with the rising range of absence issues they face. HR can do much to support them here – it holds the key to organisational policies and cultural expectations but also the support line managers may need. Aligning both sides will ensure organisations are prepared for absence management crises in the future.

Pat Ashworth is director of AdviserPlus Learning Solutions