The recent CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management Survey of more than 1,000 employers found that many companies are not adequately supporting their line managers in managing employee absence. In this interview, Corinne Williams, Director of HR & Engagement at Simplyhealth provides her insight into the survey’s findings and comments on the increasing focus employers are placing on staff wellbeing, a potential rise in presenteeism and the effects of the fast approaching festive season.
The survey found that organisations are realising the importance of line managers in managing employee absence, but are failing to fully support their line managers in this area. For example, in training, tools and support. What do you think are some of the main reasons behind this?
Investing in line manager capability brings wider benefits than just the ability to manage absence specifically. The capability to manage absence comes partly from line managers’ understanding of the impacts of absence, and then the ability to translate the legal framework around absence management into sensible and timely activities to nip absence in the bud – such as return to work interviews. However, this is mainly about soft skills – the ability to hold a conversation with an employee that’s often emotive, deeply personal and may touch on issues that neither the employee nor the manager are comfortable with.
Another reason that some organisations may not be supporting their line managers as effectively as they could do in this area could be down to the fact that the benefits of this type of training are not tangible. Additionally, the direct impact on employee absence may not be immediately measureable. As a result, this may be why some organisations may choose to invest in their management training activities elsewhere. Also, many line manager soft skills, such as the ability to hold difficult or personal conversations, are gained through other development activities and general professional experiences. This could be a contributing factor to why some companies don’t invest in training their senior leaders to manage employee absence as a priority.
The survey also found that employers do seem to be placing an increasing value on the general wellbeing of their employees. What do you think are some of the most common reasons for this increase in awareness?
At Simplyhealth, our purpose is helping people make the most of life through everyday health. We do that by giving more people access to better everyday health support. We empower Healthcare professionals to give better care to more people. By virtue of what we do and why we exist, we also empower our own employees to focus on their own everyday health & wellbeing ensuring they are able to balance and make the most of their day to day working and home lives.
We know that our own employees value the range of wellbeing benefits and initiatives that we provide at Simplyhealth and we know from our employee surveys that this is a consistent indicator of good employee engagement. As a result, we truly believe that this level of engagement and support of our employees’ health and wellbeing enables us as a company to drive great customer service and great productivity.
Do you think we will see employers continuing to increase their focus on employee wellbeing further still into 2017?
Yes, from the work that we do in collaboration with our intermediaries and corporate partners, we believe that employers will continue to increase their focus on employee wellbeing simply because health and wellbeing activities and related benefits are the strongest element of any employee value proposition (EVP). Employers that offer these types of benefits, alongside day to day pay and rations, are differentiating themselves from other employers in what is today a challenging talent attraction market.
The impact on employee engagement and consequently the impact on good attendance is an additional benefit from this type of investment. We absolutely believe that using employee wellbeing benefits is a great talent attraction tool as much as it’s an absence management opportunity.
It was found that absenteeism was generally more common in larger sized organisations. What do you think may be leading larger companies to experience this more frequently?
Employee incapacity or illness will have an impact on a business or team, no matter the size of the organisation.
Employee engagement and a true sense of role purpose plays a key part in the decision that employees may take whether to be in work or not. There is a perception that in larger organisations there may be times when an employee exercises a conscious decision to attend work when they are unwell but equally there may be employees who take time off work when they are not genuinely unwell. Factors such as company sick pay, the size of the impact on the rest of the team and the visibility of an employees absence might be some of the contributors that lead larger organisations to experience higher absence. It’s a complex area and every organisation will experience different levels of absenteeism and presenteeism for varying reasons. The important aspect of this is implementing effective management techniques that benefit both the organisation, its individual employees and wider teams.
A potential rise in presenteeism at work was also suggested by the survey. Do you think presenteeism is likely to increase further?
Every organisation, including our own, needs to ask whether they truly want to stop presenteeism and ensure employees feel empowered to make the right choice for the right reasons. Setting the right cultural expectation – that health comes first – and then demonstrating commitment to that, is the key to ensuring people know that it’s okay to be off sick when they are genuinely unwell.
Do you think the fast approaching festive season will present further issues around both absenteeism and presenteeism?
In our experience and over the winter months both absenteeism and presenteeism tends to spike. This is largely because of the increased prevalence of colds, flu and viruses as well other winter illnesses. Some businesses pre-empt this and offer free flu vaccinations to their employees The effective management of absence, whatever the cause, including ongoing meaningful conversations between employees and line managers, can help to eliminate and reduce both authentic and inauthentic absence and presenteeism.
What do you think are the best ways for employers or line managers to manage this?
The key to supporting employee wellbeing at work is centred around investing in line manager training and support; setting the right cultural expectations about employee health and wellbeing; considering the internal and external factors that impact employee wellbeing and putting in place targeted activities to reduce negative impacts and increase positive ones; listening and recognising the signs of change in employee wellbeing; and having the right conversations early – even the tough ones.
This is about line managers knowing their people and their teams, understanding a bit about their people and their lifestyles and watching for changes in behaviour or productivity. Any absence or presenteeism that is outside of ‘normal’ individual behaviour patterns should be broached by the line manager. If it’s believed that there are factors causing an employee to either choose to be at work when they shouldn’t or choose to be absent when they could attend work, it’s the line manager’s responsibility to explore this further with the employee through early conversations, setting expectations for the future around what is acceptable and sustainable – for the benefit of the individual employee, the wider team and the organisation as a whole.