How Absence Management Can Create a More Productive Workforce

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Employee absence is a significant cost for most organsations and a disruption to productivity, so managing it through software, processes and policies is vital.

Sickness absence in 2020 fell to 1.8%, the lowest it’s been since 1995 (when the ONS began recording it).

You’d be forgiven for identifying lockdowns and furlough as a factor in this drop, but in fact a downward trend is consistent over the past decade.

That said, according to the CIPD, the average UK employee will take six unplanned absences a year. Across the workforce, this is a hefty burden to manage.

Absence management is concerned with strategies and processes that deal with this employee sick leave. According to the ONS, the top reason for absence continues to be minor illness – 26%, followed by ‘other’ conditions (including COVID) – 17%, then musculoskeletal conditions – 15%, and finally mental health conditions – 11%.

Why is absence management important?

Provided your workers are human beings, absence at some point is unavoidable. Almost every employee will become sick, experience an emergency, or need to take unplanned time off work at some point.
For employers, managing absence ensures productivity is protected, and the wellbeing of employees is not unduly impacted by the increased workload. Additionally, for HR, understanding why absence occurs can help identify trends, safeguard retention, predict resource shortfalls, and dissuade unnecessary absenteeism.

Without proper sickness absence management (and absence management software) – plus policies and procedures for recording and measuring why employees do not come to the workplace – you’re blind to many of the factors that influence absenteeism. Wellbeing, employee productivity or employee engagement red flags may never be identified, leaving the HR professionals unable to explain sickness absence trends.
Without this clarity, strategies to reduce absenteeism, boost productivity, motivate employees, and protect output must be made on gut instinct. Without reliable data, organisations are wide open to unknown financial and operational risks.

How does employee absence impact employee productivity?

High levels of absenteeism rarely correlate with a productive workplace. Because highly engaged individuals are often the least likely to take unplanned absence, many industry commentators point to absence rates as a key indicator when it comes to the temperature of an organisation’s employee engagement and wellbeing.

An unusually high absence rate indicates a workplace with low engagement, which often translates to low employee productivity, and means that somewhere, something is going very wrong with your employee experience.

When employees are asked to cover for absent colleagues, productivity suffers. The extra work means they are less efficient, more tired, experience greater stress. And if the situation persists, employee engagement is the next casualty. Returning employees can also create productivity problems and complications comparable to onboarding, where output may be hampered by their lack of up-to-date knowledge, leading to delays at best, mistakes and accidents at worst.

The knock-on effect of high absence can further damage efficiency and engagement among the wider workforce, causing workers to disengage.

What can analytics tell us about absence trends?

The simple calculation for your percentage absence rate is as follows:

Absence Percentage = Total Absence / (Average Headcount x Total Days in Period) x 100

This can be used to benchmark internally or against your sector. Over time, your absence management software should enable you to build up a detailed picture of absence, which can be further broken down by factors like location, team, department and line management.

By investing the time to understand what absence looks like within your organisation, trends and patterns will become apparent – certain days or seasons, national events like sports tournaments, weather patterns or seasonal holidays may correlate with a spike in absence.

Once identified, these trends will help you design measures that make problematic, unplanned absences less likely in the future, while allowing more intelligent resource planning for times when you predict productivity is more likely to be impacted by absenteeism.

XCD’s HRMS solution enables employers to run full reports to analyse historical leave information. Leave can be categorised in any number of ways so data can be further segmented, allowing HR to build a detailed picture of the total cost of absence.

A beginners guide to People Analytics

What is the Bradford Factor?

The Bradford Factor is designed to help HR professionals get tough on short-term, frequent absence, and to support those afflicted with serious long-term illness.

However, there’s debate about its continued relevance.

Is it still applicable to the increasingly remote workforce of today? Some experts believe it fails to emphasise the reason for absence, providing only a cold, logical measurement, where managers should be having genuine conversations to identify and address the engagement issues behind persistent absence.
Find out more about XCD Time and Attendance

How to create an effective absence policy

An effective, crystal-clear absence management policy will incorporate a number of different elements to protect everyone. It should leave employees in no doubt about expectations on behaviours and standards around absence.

Your policy should clearly articulate:

  • How unplanned absence should be communicated to line management
  • What the sick pay implications and arrangements are in the event of sickness absence
  • How absence will be recorded and processed by the employer
  • How this data will be stored and used, for example, in absence management software or people analytics
  • What the possible alternatives to absence may be, for instance flexible/remote work
  • What the return-to-work procedure will entail

How to categorise types of absence:

Planned leave:

  • Holiday
  • Maternity/paternity
  • Appointments
  • Jury service
  • Sabbatical
  • Training

Unplanned leave:

  • Sickness
  • Stress
  • Injury
  • Bereavement
  • Other emergency leave


  • Lateness
  • AWOL

How can employers minimize staff absence?

Enforce your HR policy:

If you are ill, do not come to work. Nobody wants unwell people in the workplace – and making sick people come to work is not only bad for their mental health and wellbeing, it risks spreading sickness, impacting productivity and further disengaging your workers.

But those who are not ill will inevitably be sometimes tempted by unplanned absence. And where uncertainty on proper process is allowed, this bogus absence increases.

An employee considering taking a dishonest sick day should know beyond doubt that their unplanned absence must be reported via a phone call to their line manager by a certain time. They should expect to fill in a return-to-work form and perhaps even undertake a return-to-work interview. If proper process isn’t followed, they’ll be asked to explain why.

Where all that is clear (and explicitly enforced) our (hungover?) employee might be more likely to reconsider how strong the urge is to remain in bed.

They may very likely decide it’s less bother to get in the shower and get themselves to work.

Provide alternatives:

The increasing availability of ‘duvet days’ is an effective method towards minimizing unplanned employee absence through offering alternatives.

Similarly, more generous terms on leave for family issues, appointments, and other miscellaneous circumstances that may otherwise cause absenteeism is part of a sensible absence management strategy.

Empowering employees with this flexibility can have a positive impact on absenteeism, and the trust placed in workers carries strong engagement benefits.

Additionally, some employers find that when holiday entitlement is increased beyond the minimum legal requirement, the number of sick days their people take is reduced.

Incentivise attendance

Another common tactic is to reward employees for attendance. This can be an effective approach to motivate workers, but it should be approached with care.

A reward for perfect attendance over a given timeframe sounds simple enough. But if an employee loses their attendance bonus because of pregnancy or a disability, it leaves employers open to claims of indirect discrimination. Also, this type of approach needs to surf the line between promoting attendance and encouraging presenteeism.

Although it’s not something that will address serious issues impacting productivity or attendance, many employers believe this type of incentive can increase employee engagement and deter avoidable short-term absence.

How does technology support absence management?

Modern, effective, efficient absence management is virtually impossible to deliver without the right HR software.

There are simply too many moving parts for the process to be effectively managed and measured – logging worker absence involves forms, spreadsheets, leave records, communications via email, text message or telephone. Then timesheets, scheduling and staffing levels must be consulted to ensure employees and business output won’t be unduly impacted.

When absence occurs, multiple approval workflows, communications, checks, changes and adjustments constitute a significant administration burden on any HR team.

Absence management tools like XCD’s time and attendance module automate and streamline this messy process to bring it together in one place.

XCD’s HR Software features a comprehensive absence management software suite.

XCD’s absence reporting and analytics tools allow employers to identify potential business resource disruption, closely tracking sickness and absence and productivity trends to spot potential engagement issues.

In XCD, meeting your absence and leave compliance obligations is easy. All leave calculations, allocations, and adjustments are automated, saving busy HR professionals thousands of hours a year.

If you’d like to see it in action, book a demo. Alternatively, you can give us a call on +44 (0) 800 0432923, or send us an email at We look forward to hearing from you.