What's the evidence for... absence management?

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When it comes to managing absence data isn't enough. We also need to know why people are absent

You can only solve problems if there is a real and specific problem to solve. As with many obvious things it remains hidden in plain sight and is thus routinely ignored. Costly and time-consuming HR initiatives are rolled out with great gusto long before we have clear evidence of the nature and importance of the problem we are trying to fix. This approach produces a cookbook full of recipes for failure.

At first sight absence appears to be simple to measure, understand and manage. Dig a bit deeper and it gets rather more complicated.

Identifying and recording when someone is absent is fairly simple (except for teleworkers). From an evidence-based perspective it’s good to have a relatively easy-to-measure indicator. But does absence data actually provide good evidence of a real and specific problem? Not really. We need to know why someone does not turn up and how much it matters and in what ways. It’s hard to manage absence without such information.

Sometimes absences are straightforward. But more often their causes and consequences are more mysterious – and may vary a lot across absence events, people and organisations. Crude absence data needs refining to identify possible patterns, causes and types of absence.

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

Some absence is inevitable. Therefore the problem absence management aims to fix is not all absence, just those that are deemed to be ‘unnecessary’ in some way. Identifying such absences can be a challenge: at one extreme are those that are without doubt legitimate and at the other are those that seem a bit dodgy. In between these extremes are absences where it’s hard to know for sure.

It’s important to ask whether absence is necessarily a problem. In some circumstances people can work harder to compensate for an absent colleague or the absent individual can catch up when they return. So what’s the problem? In other situations absence can create excessive workloads. Yet here too the real problem may not be the absence itself but rather the failure of the organisation to build absence into its workforce planning.

In any case, being physically present is not the same as being psychologically present – nor does it mean you’re doing useful work. Many of us have experienced colleagues whose absence is a boon to team productivity and wellbeing.

The goal of absence management is therefore not to fix a single problem or drive down overall absence rates, but rather to tackle a range of problems that lead, in various ways, to unnecessary absence.

What is it?

Given that there are many types of absence with many different causes, it’s not surprising that a wide range of absence management practices exist. Some, such as disciplinary procedures or return to work interviews, aim to discourage or sanction absence. Others focus on rewarding attendance rather than punishing absence. And yet others such as flexible working, counselling and health promotion focus on alleviating the presumed causes of some types of absence.

Does it work?

While there is no shortage of evidence about what organisations say they do around absence management, there is little good quality evidence comparing the effectiveness of different techniques or measuring changes in absence before and after the introduction of some technique. However, case study evidence does suggest that a wide range of different practices can reduce absence in the context of that case. And it may be that ‘what works?’ in absence management does depend a lot on the specifics of each setting and the particular absence problems present.

Absence management can be too effective when it leads to another potential problem – presenteeism – when employees feel they must turn up to work even though they are unwell. This is most likely the result of failing to identify specific absence problems by just focusing on reducing the overall absence rate.

And here’s something else that’s obvious but often forgotten – as Einstein put it: ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’. Sometimes we need to make things more complicated.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath's School of Management and a founding member of the Center for Evidence-Based Management

Further reading

What's the evidence for... evidence-based HR?

What's the evidence for... talent management?

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