Neither here nor there

Kneejerk reactions to absenteeism just make it worse. What's needed is clear direction, a culture of trust, and the odd afternoon off to watch football.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Absence supposedly makes the heart grow fonder, but not at work.

Absenteeism is a perennial topic of conversation in HR circles (usually at three-day off-site conferences). So it was inevitable that 'absence manage- ment' would emerge as a new area of expertise - and that companies would pop up offering to take over this unappealing task for you, leaving the busy executive free to concentrate on what we should properly call 'presence management'.

These firms, whose names always include words such as 'health', 'assistance', 'active' or 'positive', are waging war against a great British tradition: the sickie. In the run-up to the World Cup, one company, Active Health Partners - the name itself makes you feel a bit nauseous - produced one of those estimates for the loss to UK Plc from England games. The firm's calculation was that £100 million would be lost for every day that England was in the tournament. Leave aside the ludicrous methodology of the 'research'.

Ignore the suspiciously round figure. Focus instead on the firm's own solution - it rented two large-screen TVs so that staff would not be tempted to call in sick.

Brilliant! What this means is that instead of sitting at home or in the pub watching the football, your staff are sitting at work watching the football. A giant leap for UK competitiveness.

The Active Health Partners solution demonstrates one of the weaknesses in the whole absence management field. The fact that people are physically in the office is a lousy proxy for their productivity. Indeed, there's evidence that people working at home are more productive than those with their feet under a company desk. Those in the office are likely to be e-mailing their mates, looking up a better car insurance deal, flirting with Bob from accounts - or watching the footie on the company-provided screens.

Too many managers are schooled in the BOS business philosophy, seeing their role as ensuring, like the struggling Church of England vicar, that there are Bums On Seats. And plenty of employees feel, understandably, that they have gone a long way towards meeting the terms of their employment contract by just turning up. Any work actually under-taken is a bonus, depending on their mood, the state of their romantic relationships and the absence of any distractions. Swathes of managers struggle to get much productivity out of their staff when they are right in front of them; they need lessons in presence management, not absence management.

Of course, there are jobs where the employee simply has to be there and where their physical location is vital: factory workers, check-out operators, hairdressers. But there are many more where productivity is only loosely tied to proximity. For these staff, a really brilliant two-hour burst of work on Monday might be worth more than two days of playing online poker on Tuesday and Wednesday.

And, of course, there are people who fabricate an excuse for not turning up to work. This is not a new phenomenon: the early history of the industrial revolution can be written as a Marxist tussle between capital and labour, or it can be seen as a clash between time-obsessed bosses and live-for-the-day, sickie-pulling workers. The bosses won. An industrial economy depends on people showing up in the same place at predictable times: try running a Fordist production line in an anarchist community.

But a post-industrial economy depends instead on the willingness of employees to share not merely their time but their ideas, enthusiasm and creativity.

These essential ingredients of 21st-century commercial success are not extracted in cultures that begrudge the odd afternoon to watch a big football game. Staff need to be crystal-clear about what their job requires of them, but should largely be trusted to meet these needs at a time and place to suit themselves.

Instead, firms are outsourcing the job of harassing people back to work - as well as of maintaining their wellbeing - to outside agencies. Something has gone wrong here. The obsession with calculating the costs of absence is based on an outdated view of the labour market and the world of work. It is focused only on getting people into the workplace. Forget about the ill people who therefore end up at work when they should be tucked up in bed.

A much bigger problem is the number of people who are at work but with little or no motivation, no inspiration and few incentives to go the extra mile - there in body but not in spirit.

The irony of tougher absence management is that it undermines wellbeing.

An article in the Economic Journal by Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia shows that an atmosphere of trust at work has a bigger influence on an employee's wellbeing than a £20,000 a year pay rise. If absence management schemes are based on the notion that workers cannot be trusted, they will fail, even if they get more Bums On Seats.

Yes, people will pull the odd sickie - as they have done since time began.

Yes, they will watch the footie rather than finish the monthly accounts.

But what will get people working, rather than just to work, is a positive culture of trust and clear direction. Aggressive 'employee absence' mechanisms signal a lack of trust, and will therefore destroy rather than enhance wellbeing.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail:

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