What is absence management and how does it work?

Absence management is a means by which employers can minimise the business impact when employees unexpectedly need time off work for illness, injury, or other unplanned reasons such as travel disruption or caring for a dependant.

‘But everybody needs time off work?’, you might say; ‘Why try to manage something that’s inevitable?’

Well, yes, most of us do need time off (70% of UK workers each year), but with the right processes, systems, and support in place, it’s proven that employers can make a positive difference to metrics like absence rate, duration of absence, and the likelihood of repeat absences.

And, done right, there are many other business benefits that come from better understanding the state of absence and wellbeing in your workforce too. Few employers realise the benefits of absence management, though, or even that processes exist that go beyond simply ‘recording’ absence for the purposes of payroll.

Perhaps that’s why it’s not yet as recognised a concept as, say, Occupational Health.

But the significant number of employees who report absence each year (remember, that’s 7 in 10 of us) mean it can be a much more powerful tool for identifying and tackling the wellbeing issues affecting people than ‘go-to’ services like employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which typically engage with fewer than 11% of your workforce.

How does absence management work?

At its core, absence management involves employees informing their employer that, unexpectedly, they will not be able to attend work for a period of time. The employer is then in a position to take steps to mitigate how that absence will impact their business in terms of productivity, risk, cost, and more. 

Organisations’ approaches to managing absence vary wildly, though, as does the effectiveness of their processes. Some employers still rely on spreadsheet-based systems, whereby staff contact their manager at the busy start of a shift, who then manually records basic absence details such as reason and expected duration.

Immediate concerns such as arranging cover then take priority, with any subsequent admin – like payroll adjustments or employment policy actions – following when time allows. There are numerous systems available that aim to ease the administrative burden of managing absence.

For example, human resources information systems (HRIS) often offer add-on absence management modules that supplement their main functions (typically shift and holiday tracking).

They bring a degree of digital sophistication to the absence process, but most ‘solutions’ are still compromised in one way or another, in terms of accuracy of absence recording, consistency of process, information security, and/or time delays.

Crucially, what is most often overlooked is the ongoing wellbeing of employees – and informing strategic changes for future improvement.

Read more on absence management in our case study here.

* ‘Financial return on EAPs 2020: How Does Your Organisation Compare?’, Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA).

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