THIS IS the year the employee went missing. On a notorious weekend in August, BA almost imploded for the feeblest excuse of all, staff shortages. Meanwhile, Royal Mail was incentivising postmen and women to deliver the mail rather than stay in bed by entering good attenders in a prize draw to win a car or holiday vouchers. And last week the Cabinet Office admitted that civil servants had stayed at home an average 10 days each in 2003, defeating attempts to reduce Whitehall sick leave to private-sector proportions.
In business, absence doth definitely not make the heart grow fonder. Absenteeism costs business pounds 11.6 billion a year, according to the CBI. In its 2004 survey, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that average sickness absence last year was 9.1 days per employee, fluctuating around 4 per cent of all working days, as it has done for the last few years.
'Absence management has been going up the agenda as companies - and the Chancellor - see it as a way of improving productivity and cutting costs,' notes CIPD employment relations adviser Ben Willmott.
Kneejerk reactions to all this are evident everywhere. Companies instinctively tighten up sanctions or institute incentives (bribes). Heart-sinkingly named 'integrated absence management packages' are something every well-equipped HR manager's gotta have, like gunbelts in the Wild West, and for much the same reasons: track down the offenders, persuade them to see the error of their ways, and if not, use force.
Seems reasonable? Of course, absenteeism matters, but it doesn't follow that the best, or even a sensible, way to manage it is directly. Absenteeism, like unhappiness, is an epiphenomenon, a by-product of a system. Managing it directly is like trying to manage a dog by holding its tail, yielding little purchase, or insight, on the behaviour of the rest of the animal. Indeed, yanking its tail has a good chance of making it forget its previous grievances and bite you instead.
Obviously, absenteeism equals people not wanting to come to work. What makes people so unhappy with their jobs that they don't turn up, with all the knock-on effects for colleagues and customers? Apart from coughs and colds, the answer, attested by the CIPD research, particularly for white-collar workers, is stress related to workload, management style, organisational change and the need to meet targets.
Stress-related dissatisfaction and absence are increasing. Apart from the CIPD figures, research from the University of Kent has identified a 10 per cent drop in job satisfaction over the last decade - at first sight surprising, since wage and employment levels are buoyant. But those advantages may be outweighed by perceived intensification of work and diminishing levels of control over the job.
Remind you of anything? These are exactly, and depressingly, the same complaints made against the factory system from the 1920s onwards. Offices, particularly in the target-obsessed, low-paid, inflexible public sector, are today's alienating, top-down mass-manufacturing plants. Recent concerns about bullying as a factor in absenteeism, confirms Willmott, are not coincidence, though there is a fine line between legitimate and illegitimate pressure: 'Where managers are themselves under pressure to meet quotas or targets, it's all too easy to pass it on down the line.'
The conventional HR response is to say that absence management, while no panacea on its own, is needed as part of the bundle of practices - clear aims and roles, training, reward, etc - that make up the 'high-performance workplace'. A more radical approach is to say absenteeism is a form of waste, and, as with any other waste, the only real answer is to design it out of the system.
A straw poll of the staff who work for Observer Business revealed that absenteeism here is a tiny fraction of the national average. How so? A combination of high adrenaline, crystal-clear expectations (miss a deadline? I don't think so), extreme flexibility in meeting them, peer pressure and dependence ('teamwork' in the jargon), and the instant gratification of seeing your work in print at the weekend, means that, despite routine grumbles, the attractions of playing hooky are not as great as those of doing the job.
An exception? Well, no. It's true that media and telecoms have low absenteeism nationally, as does consultancy. But most work has some of the same elements, and all work can be well or badly designed for its purpose. According to recent figures, employees at Lincoln City Council took an average 18.2 days - more than three weeks - off sick last year, a staggering four times more than the best performer, Hampshire's Hart District Council, where employees were absent just 4.7 days. Even assembly-line work can (no, should) be designed to give employees control over what they do. Car workers at Toyota can stop the line if there's a problem they cannot solve, but that's not a people issue - it's to do with ensuring that the job is done right in the first place.
Absence management, like appraisal and bureaucracy in general, is part of the heavy cost of a badly designed work system. It adds complexity to management and no value to the customer. The solution is therefore not to manage it better - a classic case of doing the wrong thing righter - but to get rid of the need for it altogether. The best kind of absence management is conspicuous by its absence.
The Observer, 2 November 2004