Practical strategies for managing absenteeism

The annual cost of sickness absence has climbed to almost $30 billion for Australian organisations, according to a surveypublished recently by Direct Health Solutions. Here is some practical advice and guidance for HR and line managers on managing sickness absence. The most common problem survey respondents reported was recurrent, short-term absence.

Challenge for the manager

 The challenge for managers is being too soft and ignoring policy breaches and recurrent absence patterns and being too demanding and putting pressure on employees to return to work sooner than they are healthy. Both can lead to a breakdown in the manager-employee relationship, and lower levels of engagement with the organisation. says that poor return to work practices for absenteeism can result in the employee feeling no one cares. Lack of management or failure to escalate complex or chronic cases early can result in continued absenteeism and take up significant amounts of management time.

Early intervention is key, and line managers need to know the levels of absence that require escalation and have clear guidelines on what they are required to do so that they can effectively support policy.

What can be done?

There are some fundamental things HR practitioners and line managers should demonstrate to ensure they are fair and consistent when it comes to managing employee absenteeism, particularly recurring sickness absence.

A robust sickness absence management policy needs to be in place. A robust and consistent absence reporting and recording procedure is essential and should be applied equally to all staff. Sickness absence cannot be managed if it is not accurately recorded. Our 2017 Absence Survey revealed that nearly 40% of organisations are not recording absence accurately, and it is up to 25% under-reported.

If you are serious about managing absence, you need to face the truth about your absence levels. Open communication lines that are aimed at developing or maintaining good attendance need to be in place. The employer needs to propose regular reviews to discuss the individual’s progress, problems and their return to work plans. If there is a concern about the length or frequency of the individual’s absences from work, there is a possibility that there may be an underlying medical condition, and the employer may wish to engage the employee’s treating practitioner/s or arrange an independent medical assessment.

Return to work interviews

Return to work interviews should be used following every absence. There are both formal and informal types, depending on the length and duration of the absence. These are not disciplinary sessions, rather they have s range of positive objectives, including:

  • Identifying any ongoing medical condition/s
  • Establishing potential care or safety measures to facilitate an employee’s return to suitable duties
  • Reviewing the impacts of any health condition that may affect an employee’s ability to perform the inherent requirements of their role
  • Discussing recommendations made by the employee’s treating doctor/health practitioner
  • Exploring potential support services that the company may offer that are relevant
  • Discussing concerns regarding workplace relationships, outstanding grievances, etc
  • Flagging recurrent absences and establishing trigger points to ensure timely escalations to HR and/or senior management

Management training

Managing absence is a complex issue and takes up significant time, however it is a reality for all managers. Managers, like anyone, need to have the skills and training to know how to manage absence in your organisation. Managing absence effectively involves understanding the drivers of absence, techniques to manage the different types of absence behaviours/motivations, understanding the legal landscape that surrounds absence, techniques for addressing challenging cases, and strategies to address a culture of entitlement.

Absence triggers

Ever been surprised to hear how someone could have so much absenteeism before you know about it? To slow down the recurrence of these issues, implementing automated trigger management ensures that a) your line managers are advised to look more closely at employee absences, b) senior managers are alerted to employees who have high levels of absence, and c) when absence keeps escalating, HR are alerted to ensure the case is being managed appropriately.

The objective of having triggers is to address the absenteeism constructively, for the employee, for the manager and for the organisation. Developing effective attendance support plans provides a pathway of mutually agreed action, or steps, the employee and company can take to improve attendance. Too often, cases are permitted to continue without meaningful intervention. Triggers ensure that this process is more fairly and consistently managed in your organisation.

The open discussions encourage employees to voice their concerns and request help. From the employer’s point of view, these discussions help to effectively manage and monitor sickness absence, particularly with the more complex cases. It also helps to ensure that the sickness management process is structured, consistent, clear and fair.


Exploring what sort of workplace support may be appropriate includes the following:

  • Considering what sort of workplace adaptations may be required, to suit the individual’s limitations
  • Offering a phased return to work plan, based on the individual’s reported capabilities and limitations
  • Considering amending the individual’s duties whilst on a phased return to work
  • Identifying an alternative suitable role, if required
  • Arranging regular one-to-one reviews, to discuss progress, support and any problems

Contact us for a chat to discuss your absence challenges now.

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