Flexible Working Hours Could Be the Solution to Rising Employee Absences

A new survey of personnel managers indicates many believe that flexible work hours could stop rising employee absences by allowing workers time off to deal with personal issues such as stress and childcare, without having to resort to calling in sick.

A survey of 400 human resources professionals by The Work Foundation of Great Britain comes as that government struggles to gain employer buy-in for new family-friendly employment rights, which take effect in April. The new figures reverse the previous downward trend and are the highest since 1996 when The Work Foundation began monitoring absence.

Overall absence rates in 2002 were 4.12 percent (or nine days per employee per year) - up from 2.9 percent in 2001. The problem is particularly acute in the public and voluntary sectors - where the absence rate has more that doubled, from 2.97 percent in 2001 to 7.86 percent in 2002.

The top five reasons given by employees for time off are colds/flu (93 percent), food poisoning/stomach upsets (77 percent), headaches/migraines (64 percent), stress/emotional/personal problems (54 percent) and back problems (47 percent).

By contrast, managers believe the most common reasons for absence are cold/flu (59 percent), stress/emotional/personal problems (58 percent), Monday morning blues/extending the weekend (39 percent), sickness of other family member/childcare problems (36 percent), the concept of being entitled to taking sick leave (31 percent), and low morale/boring job (31 percent).

Over half of the responding organizations offer employees flexible schedules. Two-thirds of these companies believe that flexible working hours help to reduce absence, as do flexible annual leave (49 percent) and occasionally allowing employees to work from home. (48 percent).

Traditionally, the groups most at risk of absence are male manual workers and women with child or elder care responsibilities at home. While the figures suggest that companies are having some success in managing manual worker absence, the reverse is true of female absence, which seemed to increase slightly in 2002.

Employers "may find that flexible work practices address the 'ability to attend factor' and help people manage their responsibilities more effectively," said Stephen Bevan, The Work Foundation's deputy director of research.

The survey also found that the financial impact of absence is calculated in less than half (43 percent) of companies surveyed a decrease of 11 percent since 1996. One-third of the respondents claimed that calculating the financial impact of employee absence is too time-consuming. Around a quarter of the respondents do not have a computerized personnel system or accurate attendance records.

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