A simple guide to managing staff absences

11 min read  |   9 November, 2023   By Laura Sands

A keyboard and mouse are shown. A yellow sticky note on the keyboard reads 'sick leave' with a pen next to it.

Unplanned absence costs British business dearly. In fact, sick days cost UK businesses £20.6 billion per year; a cost that few organisations can afford to shoulder over the long term.

But it’s not all bad news - you can get a handle on unplanned absence in your business by using staff absence management tools.


In this guide, we explore:


What is absence management? 

Absence management – also known as attendance management - is the way a company aims to reduce employee absence.

It covers a broad range of initiatives, from programmes improving health and wellbeing through to disciplinary procedures for excessive and persistent absence.


Why is absence management important? 

Absence management is important for the smooth running of your business. Unplanned absence is bad news for your finances - it costs money through lost productivity, business disruption and sick pay.

If you’re able to minimise unplanned absence, it follows that you’ll improve your productivity whilst managing your costs.

Now let's look at the human side of absence management. Unplanned absence can trigger feelings of dissatisfaction within your team. It can lead to workplace stress as well as frustration among employees who have to pick up the work in place of their out-of-office colleagues. 

Higher levels of employee absence can indicate problems within your business. Increased stress, a toxic culture, misguided hiring and even insufficient training for the job can all trigger absence.

By examining the patterns in your absence data, you can potentially pick up on issues sooner and nip them in the bud. The result? A healthier workforce and a stronger business.


What is an absence management policy? 

An absence management policy is a combination of programmes and tools to help reduce employee absence.

It needs to strike a careful balance between your employees knowing they can take sick leave and have days off for unforeseen circumstances whilst preventing them from taking leave excessively.   


Your absence management policy should include:

  • What an employee needs to do if they can't come in to work. For instance, who do they need to tell, when by and how? Is a text message to their manager enough, or do they have to log onto your HR system and log their absence by 8am?

  • Details of how their absence data is recorded and measured.

  • What will happen when they come back to work if they're off for a long time. This might include a return to work interview and a mini onboarding to help them reintegrate into the team and their projects.

  • What happens to their pay if they miss work. They need to know how many paid sick days they are eligible for and what happens if they’re frequently absent from work – at what point, for instance, and under what circumstance would you start disciplinary action?

How to keep track of employee absences

Although it might seem as if recording absence is just one more thing to do, it can make a huge difference. It can be an important source of information to help you run your SME successfully.

Recording absences helps you to highlight problems you might otherwise not notice. Without an absence management system in place, you’ll be blind to patterns of absence that you could otherwise monitor. It helps you nip problems in the bud before they evolve into something more problematic.

For instance, you may not notice that one team has more absence than others, or may notice a pattern forming in one of your team members' absences.

What’s more, if you’re recording absences you can dig into the reasons behind them and address the root cause. And this can make a real difference.

Discover Breathe's absence management feature

Absence management system


Causes of absence at work

It's important to remember that absence from work has a host of causes and can last for anything from a single day to several months. Illness and injury are common reasons, but there may be other less obvious causes.

For instance, the CIPD found that taking time off to care for young children was the fifth main cause of short-term absence. And even if your staff members don’t have young children, perhaps they have elderly parents or a partner who needs extra support.

It can be difficult to arrange for doctors or hospital visits at the best of times, and they may end up “pulling a sickie” just so they can accompany their parents or partner to a routine appointment.

Others may take time off work because they’re being bullied and don’t feel able to reach out for support. Or they may feel they’re not capable of doing their job – perhaps as a result of missing out on training.

It’s also important to remember that mental health issues are the most common cause of long-term absence.

What is leavism?

Leavism is where employees use their annual leave to work, instead of resting and recuperating. It's the flip-side of absenteeism, and is a real issue in UK businesses.

In fact, the most recent CIPD health & wellbeing survey found that nearly three quarters of people surveyed had seen leavism taking place.

Typically, you may see employees using time off work to check their emails, log into their projects and take calls.

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They may also refuse to book holidays or you may find them cancelling their time off at the last moment. As much as these employees may look as though they’re super-committed, this constant presence at work is ultimately bad news for their health and your business.

We need time away from work to avoid burnout and maintain a work-life balance and good health. Without this break, your employees line themselves up for illness and mental health problems, which in turn creates absenteeism.

Whether you notice leavism or persistent absenteeism in your SME, it can be a symptom of a problematic culture. Take steps to build on your culture and focus on putting your team first to minimise leavism. Trust us, your business will thank you for it later. 



How do you handle staff absence?

Sadly, you can’t press a magic button to prevent staff absence. But, with a combination of tools, you can take steps to minimise it. 


5 practical ways to manage employee absences in your SME 

Here are our top 5 recommendations:

1. Be flexible

Life is busy. Some employees take unauthorised time off because they just don’t have enough time to deal with all their commitments.

That’s why giving employees the opportunity to work more flexibly can work so well. It works by helping them free up time so they can be more flexible around their commitments.

working from home

Try a flexi-time scheme or introducing working from home. You'll reduce unplanned absence, simply by allowing your team to plan their lives more easily.

Likewise, giving employees the opportunity to buy (or sell) part of their holiday allowance can help. Having more time to take off during school holidays means they don’t have to take sick leave in order to care for their children.

This extra time off also give employees that much needed R&R, helping boost their immune systems and improve mental health, making them healthier and more productive when they're at work. 


2. Clearer guidelines

Be clear about what does and doesn’t constitute an acceptable reason for taking time off work.

As part of this, it’s helpful to encourage employees who are feeling a little under the weather to work from home so they can still contribute, recover more quickly and avoid spreading their germs around your office.

Make it clear that there’s no glory in dragging yourself into the office if you’re only going to infect the rest of your team.

But be clear about your expectations. For example, taking a full day off on sick leave just to attend a 30-minute dentist appointment is not acceptable.


3. Create a wellbeing programme

Focusing on employee wellbeing helps reduce stress and improve overall fitness which can in turn help reduce your overall employee absence rates.

Your wellbeing programme can be as simple or involved as you like. Even the smallest changes make an enormous difference to the health and wellbeing of your people. 

Offering days dedicated to wellbeing (for all or part of the day) is another aspect to consider. According to our People First Culture Series research, 35% of SME employees surveyed said that their company doesn't currently offer wellbeing days, but that they would find them helpful. 

Perhaps you could also try replacing a vending machine with a fruit delivery, or encouraging walking meetings instead of office-based catch-ups?

These are just some of things you can do to improve absence rates.


4. Communicate with your team

Many employees take sick leave because they’re unaware of the options available to

Use your onboarding programme, regular one-to-ones and a clear absence tracking tool to make sure your staff understand their options.

This might include parental leave for working parents, or a discussion about reasonable adjustments for someone suffering from a health condition.

What’s more, being open with your team means they'll be more likely to approach you if they have a problem. And this means you can work through problems together.


5. Train your managers 

Your managers have a lot to take account of, so make sure you give them the right training.

Without formal training, they may fail to spot patterns in absences or deal with problems ineffectively. This can damage relationships within their team and amplify problems.

By investing in manager training, you’re giving your managers the tools they need to handle absence management themselves. This means you'll be more freed up to focus on other important tasks. 


How do you manage absenteeism in the workplace?

As with everything, you’ve got to strike the right balance when managing absence.

Watching it too closely can encourage a culture of presenteeism, with your staff dragging themselves into work instead of taking time off sick.

Research from our People First Culture Series delved into the various reasons why people didn't take time off sick despite suffering symptoms; including 21% of SME employees who didn't want to let colleagues down and 41% who thought their symptoms weren't bad enough. 

If presenteeism occurs, not only do employees risk passing their illness onto the rest of their team, but they won’t be able to give their full attention to the job - and risk making costly mistakes.

On the other hand, being too lenient with time off can result in a culture where your employees take time off for the smallest incident because they know there won’t be any consequences.

If you’d like help implementing your absence management policy, an experienced HR professional could help. Our directory of approved HR consultants is a great place to start.


Easily manage sickness absence

Monitoring sickness and absence patterns in your SME can help you understand more about your business and the people who work for you.

And this understanding can help you strengthen your business for long-term success and a better place to work.


Author: Laura Sands

Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.

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