Monday, 13 March 2017

As new ONS figures show reduced sickness absence, we ask, are employers just scaring sick people back to work?


It seems an ironic question for an absence management software company to ask, but as a new ONS report shows the lowest recorded absence levels since records began in 1993, it is important that employers ask themselves honestly whether any change in sickness absence is down to fear and presenteeism trends rather than a healthier workforce.

Many larger organisations have simply 'toughened up' on their absence management policies for dealing with staff sickness, rather than investing in systems which would deliver more support for unwell staff and distinguish sickies from genuine employee illness.

Here's how HR News reported the issue, with comment from Activ Absence's absence management expert, Adrian Lewis:


Minor illnesses most common reason for sickness absence

Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) were the most common reason for sickness absence in 2016, accounting for nearly a quarter of all sick days (24.8% of the total days lost), closely followed by musculoskeletal problems (including back pain, neck and upper limb problems) at 30.8 million days (22.4%).
11.5% of sickness absence was attributed to mental illness (including stress, depression and anxiety) which resulted in 15.8 million days off sick (11.5%).

Older workers and public sector workers taking less time off

Those with the highest rates of sickness absence included women, older workers, those with long-term health conditions, smokers, public health sector workers and those working in the largest organisations (those with 500 or more employees).
Reductions in sickness absence rates over the last 2 decades include workers with long-term health conditions, workers aged 50 to 64, and those working in the public sector, with public sector organisations responding to calls for them to tackle absence after traditionally higher rates than those seen in the private sector.

Staff need to be healthy, not scared and sick in work

Absence management expert Adrian Lewis of Activ Absence gave the figures a cautious welcome, but expressed concern about possible presenteeism where organisations have implemented new absence management policies without investing in new technology.  He said:

“It’s great to see any reduction in sick days, most notably in the public sector.  We know that this has almost certainly come from concerted efforts to manage sickness absence better, and we’ve enjoyed working with our public and private sector clients to put the tools in place to support sick workers more effectively.

“My concern is that some employers are still not be getting the balance right – it’s not just about improving the figures, we want staff to be healthy, not scared to take time off.   Many employers have ‘tightened up’ on policies without any analysis or investment in tools to give meaningful data.  

"I recently heard of a public sector employee with pneumonia, clearly too sick to work, who was afraid of being disciplined under a sickness absence policy, so went into work anyway.  Ironically, the sickness monitoring system being used by that organisation only measured long term absence and could not even identify the ‘odd sickie’ trends which are far more disruptive to the business.
Presenteeism is a very real concern.”   

Nation of ‘mucus troopers’

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady agreed, saying:

“We are really a nation of mucus troopers, with people more likely to go to work when ill than stay at home when well.

“Sickness absence rates have fallen steadily over the past decade, and let us not forget that working people put in billions of pounds worth of unpaid overtime each year.”

Statistics are not always accurate

Adrian also expressed concern about how organisations calculate sick day statistics, saying:

“Many manual spreadsheets and payroll-only systems do not give accurate estimates of staff sick days anyway, so for some organisations these figures will be a guess at best.  In my opinion, a proper automated absence management system with good reporting tools will not only accurately measure absence but will also distinguish between employees who swing the lead and identify those genuinely sick employees in need of support (not discipline).

“The right systems need to be followed up with best-practice HR policies, such as conducting return to work interviews, even for short term absence – with the focus being on support, not judgement.  The resulting analytics can also be used to identify opportunities to improve staff health and wellbeing – and can help make sure your benefits strategy is aligned with these goals.

“Any strategy to reduce sick days should never include scaring genuinely sick people back into work.”

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

How can employers REALLY improve staff engagement and productivity?

Guest blog by Adrian Lewis

As we approach the end of the first quarter, and the end of the financial year, many businesses are looking at staff performance – and the age old debate about performance  appraisals.  Engaged employees are productive employees – so why isn’t the UK competing, productivity wise?

Social Seeder produced an infographic showing what makes employees feel engaged, based on research from Red Letter Days:

What do employers do now?
It seems the performance review process is failing to deliver the engagement objectives the study identified – so what IS the process?
  • No process at all?  Some organisations have never reviewed staff performance.  Many plan to introduce reviews each year, but other priorities overtake the good intentions.
  • Some businesses decided to ‘scrap appraisals’ after it got trendy few years back.  CIPD research shows that businesses who scrapped appraisals are now facing productivity challenges.   Hands up those who did what they should and replaced appraisals with a system of performance reviews, regular feedback and coaching – you are probably among the few UK organisations without a performance problem.  Many companies just threw the baby out with the bathwater.
  • Finally, many organisations still use an outdated traditional annual appraisals process – and experience the same performance challenges as those who do nothing.
Outdated systems for performance reviews do not engage people – and are therefore not tackling productivity.

What is the traditional process?
Traditionally, appraisals are done yearly and mean a big paper filling exercise, a few tick boxes and an awful lot of passing word template documents you downloaded off the internet back and forth between team leaders and HR.
Line Managers often don’t receive training on how to do an appraisal.  Whilst managers are supposed to deliver feedback for a whole year’s performance, using old paper systems and no long term records, the appraisal winds up relating to the last few weeks and only considers the reviewer’s current opinion.
Under this model, employees see the review as a trip to the Headmaster’s office.  Neither party enjoys the experience and once the deed is done, there is a sigh of relief from both parties and they move on to the next task.   There is no consistency between reviewers, HR are left to navigate a pile of emails and paper, and to be honest it’s easier for HR to file away the problem than investigate what isn’t working – if that’s all you plan to do, you may as well scrap appraisals.
That’s a shame, because getting performance reviews right, like Adobe and countless other employers have done,  means the business could see:
  • increased employee engagement
  • better employee performance
  • improved staff retention and
  • improved employee satisfaction

How can businesses get performance reviews right?
Adobe have been hailed as the poster child for scrapping appraisals – but what they actually did was make a commitment to communicate with their staff more effectively, looking at motivation as a continual goal rather than a nudge once per year.  They have quarterly meetings, two way feedback, and both parties can also request meetings in between.  The process is more open, with continual coaching and open team feedback.  It’s not so much of an assessment as mutual goal to drive performance forward.   Adobe have experienced 30% less employee turnover since implementing the system – rare in a high talent environment.
Of course, not every business has Adobe’s level of resource – but every business can benefit from a more inspired, structured approach.  After all, the meeting aspect is the same, so why not have a meeting that inspires your team rather than leaves them feeling negative?  Here’s some of the things I recommend businesses think about:
  • asking for employee feedback ahead of the meeting
  • peer reviews (360 degree feedback)
  • an agreed structure for reviews thoughout the organisation
  • agreed competencies for each job role against which employees can be assessed
  • identify learning and development opportunities
  • agree SMART performance objectives
All of this CAN be managed through a manual system – but keeping all that on track, shuffling paper back and forth, is a time intensive process. It makes commercial sense for HR to switch to a cloud based appraisals system – which has the added benefit of both manager and employee being able to see exactly what was agreed and stay on track, rather than digging out old pieces of paper from somewhere in the filing cabinet.
HR Managers would not think twice about buying a staff member a cup of coffee once a month for a tangible improvement in performance if a benefits expert advised it would work, but they are often reluctant to invest in software – software to manage performance reviews would cost about a tenth of that, and the potential for impact is huge.
Isn’t it time HR took a fresh look at how we manage our people?

Monday, 30 January 2017

Rugby -v- HR: 6 top tips to help HR win this Six Nations


The Six Nations challenge sees the UK’s regions joined by Italy and France to compete for the RBS Six Nations trophy.  The first match of the tournament takes place this Saturday as Scotland takes on Ireland at the BT Murrayfield stadium.
Here’s just some of the issues HR Managers can expect to see during the tournament:

Diversity, racism and equality
As always, strength of feeling may be running high and extend off the pitch into banter between different fans.
It’s colloquially said this side of the Severn bridge that Welsh supporters cheer for two teams – Wales and any team playing England!  However, England, Ireland and Scotland’s fans are equally proud and supportive of their National teams.
Rugby is a multi-cultural sport with a very good track record for diversity on the field, and in South Africa the sport helped reunite a divided Nation.  Sadly last year we saw some on-pitch racist taunting from Joe Marler towards welsh player Sam Lee.  Hopefully this year won’t see a repeat.  However, any on-pitch drama has the potential to create conflict between workplace colleagues.
It’s important for HR to make sure what happens on-pitch, stays on-pitch and doesn’t descend into all out war in the workplace between opposing fans.

Hangovers, sickness absence and presenteeism
 In most home nations a big drinking culture accompanies international games.  Thankfully, none of the fixtures are midweek, but there are still likely to be consequences.
A Sunday match usually means an increase in ‘Sickie Mondays’ as people recover from a weekend of over-indulgence, or those who had travel delays.
Similarly, Saturday games often see workers trying to sneak off early to travel to the game.
One welsh rugby fan who will be literally supporting HR over the tournament is absence management expert Adrian Lewis, who has spent more than 20 years helping HR tackle challenges with software.  He’s an ex player for the London Welsh squad, as well as his local team – and still coaches his village team Bryncoch RFC.

So what top tips does Adrian have to keep HR Managers in control as the Six Nations Tournament begins?

1.  Reinforce expected behaviour ahead of time
Given the intense competition between nations, it’s important to remind people about behaviour ahead of the first match. Make it clear that racism, sexism and homophobic language and behavior are not acceptable in the workplace so that on-pitch drama stays on the pitch.  National pride cannot be allowed to create conflict in the workplace, make sure nobody feels bullied and that any workplaces discussions are good natured and inclusive, whichever nation your workplace is located in.

2. Don’t forget about presenteeism!
It may seem commendable that people come into work despite the worst hangover – however, if they are in work but not capable of working, then they are just impacting on productivity.  The UK already has productivity challenges, and in some cases operating machinery or driving whilst still under the influence is dangerous and in some cases illegal – if someone is hungover and still clearly inebriated, having them in to make up the numbers is not worth the risk.  Again, decide clearly what your policies regarding alcohol and hangovers should be and make sure the policy is enforced.  Circulate the policy and make sure everyone knows what the rules are.

3.  Make sure you have a clear absence management plan
HR should not be surprised if absence increases during the tournament, however being prepared for it will reduce the impact.  HR Managers will benefit by keeping an eye on key sporting fixtures for their region.  Six Nations fixture dates are here.
Ahead of the tournament, remind staff on your policy on sickness absence.  More than half of employed adults believe their work performance is negatively impacted when attendance policies are not fairly enforced throughout an organisation, so make sure sickness absence rules apply equally to management and staff.

4.  Educate your staff
Staff often do not realise that short term absence has a big impact on the company’s bottom line and are more disruptive to the business than long term sickness.   Our HR software allows staff to see their own Bradford Factor, which discourages short term absence.  You could subtly discourage sickies by asking staff  if they want to book Friday or Monday off ahead of the weekend fixtures (so they know their excuses are not likely to work!)

5. Use return-to-work forms and interviews
Sporting sickies almost always have repeat offenders – it’s usually the same people swinging the lead.   However, how can managers challenge sickies if they don’t have data?
Activ Absence incorporates a complete return to work process so data is reported and analysed, but even if you don’t have an absence management system, you can still use self certification forms and conduct return to work interviews to keep an accurate history of absence.  Recognising patterns and trends gives managers the tools they need to tackle the problem – although its important to give the employee a chance to speak – there may be other factors you hadn’t considered, so keep the interviews non-judgemental and fact finding.  You can decide on action later.
Using a formal absence management process helps managers:
  • welcome employees back,
  • check they are well enough to return to work,
  • identify the cause of the absence,
  • find out whether they have a disability (including invisible ones like asthma, diabetes, epilepsy etc.),
  • gently explore any early signs of stress,
  • identify if the absence has any work related cause,
  • highlight any health and safety issues.
Once a pattern of absence is identified (of course, automated systems will usually do this for you via trigger points), you can determine what action to take – and prompt action avoids escalation.
Sometimes a timely word from a line manager early on can prevent a pattern escalating into a major discipline problem involving unions, HR and legal teams.  Often, that ‘quiet chat’ (notes recorded of course) negates both the absence escalating and the need for further intervention.

6. Kick out staff planning spreadsheets!
If there was one tool I’d like to see kicked out of an HR Manager’s toolkit it’s spreadsheets for staff planning.
They create more problems than they solve and have a bad track record for managing people, they are prone to error, prone to pc crashes and offer zero in the way of reporting and analysis.
Maintaining spreadsheets creates a dependency on HR for information, line managers don’t often have access to staff absence information, so they can’t see who’s off sick, who’s taking annual leave and who took time off, why and when.  This means in practice that by the time a situation is escalated to HR, there is already a big problem.  It also means HR are flooded with a sea of calls about how much annual leave people have left, who can take what, when, and then liaison calls between the employee, line manager and HR.  Honestly, it doesn’t have to be that complicated!
Absence management systems like Activ Absence are designed for the job – employees self service leave requests, the system calculates leave allowances and line managers can deal with most issues… leaving HR free to to the job they trained for.  If you are worried about money, the systems usually pay for themselves in terms of reducing sickness absence, improved staff engagement and streamlined reporting – all of which frees up an HR Manager’s time to do more important tasks, as well as giving useful data enabling better targeting of wellness budgets.
Adrian says:
“Spreadsheets are the problem – not the solution.   If they were on a rugby field, they’d be scoring tries for the opposition!”
We hope you’ve found these six tips useful – and no matter who you are rooting for this Six Nations, we hope that HR emerges as the winner!

Monday, 16 January 2017

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

First day back and only 4% of Senior Execs think HR is highly effective? WHAT?



Having worked in the HR software field for some time now, I was very disappointed to see the findings of a recent global survey sponsored by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The study found only 4% of the senior business executives surveyed thought their HR function was 'highly effective' in addressing the needs of the business. 
60% of respondents described HR’s capabilities as “adequate but needing improvement,” and another 30% said “significant improvement” is required.
I wonder how busy those senior executives will be today, on the first day back after a Christmas break.  Their HR colleagues will be flat out, trying to simultaneously compile last year’s End of Year Staff Holiday Report whilst already juggling the first holiday requests for 2017.
What the senior execs fail to appreciate, as they glance through the HR reports, is all the hassle that the HR team endured in order to deliver a seemingly smooth performance, and all the challenges HR dealt with that went unnoticed, not in the report because potential problems were averted.
Staff holiday planning is a good example.  If there has been no leave crisis in that senior exec's team that year, it's probably because someone in HR spent time treading a delicate balance to keep everyone happy, motivated and most importantly ensured adequate leave cover.   What seems insignificant took time and effort.
These battles are no better illustrated than on the first day back to work, as staff argue, race and cajole in order to secure the best holiday dates.  HR will be the judge, peace-keeper and will have to regulate the in-house arguments over who placed their request first, who deserves the best dates and why as the excuses mount up.  
The admin burden is just as tiresome - and it seems, wholly unappreciated.  According to data from top auditors, 80% of HR Managers have to use paper forms, spreadsheets or an office wall planner, even though leave planning software has existed for years now (Activ Absence is in its 10th year).  
Note to senior colleagues: HR cannot perform miracles on a shoestring without the tools to do the job.  
Paper is messy, important data is often lost and reporting is time consuming and disjointed. Spreadsheets often result in lost data due to human error, PC crashes and confusion.
Change is overdue and most HR practitioners are calling for it, indeed Activ Absence saw a huge rise of enquiries from HR Managers in December.  Our customers range from employing 5 staff to 5000, and we are used to working with HR professionals across all types of organisations, including charities, SME's, blue chips and start ups.  
We have the utmost respect for HR professionals because we see first hand the difference their contribution makes to the workplace.  In fact, we take pride in being able to help most of them - and if we can’t help or meet their needs, we’ll tell them that honestly. 
However, the main challenge for HR is not in finding a software provider like us, but in persuading senior execs that the profession makes a massive difference to the business, and is worthy of investment in software.  
It doesn't inspire confidence when HR reads their colleagues 'don’t think HR supports the business well enough’.   
Perhaps senior execs, in their technology rich specialities, could take a walk in HR shoes for a day and see exactly what it's like to be managing as best you can without the aid of technology and it seems without the support of your colleagues.
My New Year message to the unsung heroes of HR, is we’re among the 4% who appreciate the huge difference you make, and we will strive to keep supporting you.  
Have a fantastic 2017 everyone.