According to the ONS, half a million more people have left the UK labour force because of long-term sickness since those long-forgotten days in pre-pandemic 2019. From June to August 2022 this was the main reason for economic inactivity for around 2.5 million people.
Investigations are continuing as to what are the major factors influencing this increase, but the ONS suggests that it could be the impact of NHS waiting times, long COVID, and the ageing workforce.
Matthew Taylor, known in the past for the report to government titled Good Work: The Taylor Review of Good Working Practices and now the Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, said, “We do need a greater awareness of the way in which gaps in health and care provision are contributing to the problem with people of working age not working… I would very much encourage employers to recognise that waiting for health interventions may be a challenge for their workers and to support them in that”
While older people still make up the majority, younger people have also seen some large proportional increases whilst wholesale and retail industries seem to be bearing the brunt of the problem.
This long-term sickness is obviously a significant issue for the individual people and families involved, but the knock-on affect to business and services is a major concern as well. Workforce costs can be a major proportion of an organisation's expenditure, therefore understanding the reasons behind absence and having systems in place to allow you to deal with them in an effective and timely manner is essential
After the last few years, few would now deny the need for stringent absence monitoring, but for some it remains an uncomfortable topic due to its emotional and political implications, especially after going through the pandemic and necessary self-isolating.
With this recent evidence, this issue is only likely to become more important for the shrinking workforce, but you need to be extremely careful how absences are covered as this can also create a dangerous reversal of motivations. If the policy is to ask colleagues to cover for absent workers by putting in overtime, this can inadvertently almost incentivise absenteeism if it translates to a bigger pay package for other team members. This may lead to unsustainable workloads for the most eager or highly skilled, and where this happens, organisations may need to revise their procedures for covering absences, for instance by spreading workload across teams or by shifting team members. They may also need to strive for a more honest approach with mechanisms that engender a peer pressure mentality to reduce absenteeism. This can only be achieved by creating a culture that better fits its workforce attendance requirement to the real demands for presence. This underlines the need for a full understanding of precisely who should be present at work at any time, what flexibilities and seasonality's exist, and if there are any skills or training gaps. Only then will it be able to accept and effectively manage genuine long and shorter-term absence and challenge ‘duvet days'.
As smart meters are enabling us to better manage the ever increasing energy costs, by providing an understanding of peak and trough usage and its causation, the concept of workforce management enables businesses to apply a similar more holistic approach to managing staff.
An obvious advantage of this approach is that personnel, payroll, and benefits professionals no longer have to spend most of their working hours on protracted but mundane tasks such as entering attendance data. Not only does this save time and costs, it also means they can focus on the managerial and strategic side of their job.
The other significant benefit is that workforce management systems enable organisations to record much more detailed information about employees, their attendance, and activities. The cumulated data can be analysed systematically to identify patterns for single individuals or even the entire workforce. This can uncover the reasons for elevated levels of absenteeism or lead to an understanding of the real reasons behind overtime, which may be due to organisational misalignment. Workforce data can be fed back into the scheduling process to provide a more accurate prediction of the time and resource needed to perform future tasks.
To fully manage the issues of absenteeism, not only must organisations be open to becoming more flexible in the way they work, they also need to seek to align the interests of employee and employer more strongly. This does not mean having a ‘Big Brother’ view of the workforce, but is in fact a methodology to accomplish greater fairness, with consideration of the needs of individual workers to better understand attendance requirements - allowing you to achieve the service provision required.