Managing long term absence in SMEs ? a role for independent HR?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Experienced HR managers know that stress and absence are bad for business and that tackling absence problems can be a difficult and complex process.

Whilst a long term absence case can have a disproportionate effect on absenteeism figures, they can also be time consuming and complex to resolve. Experienced practitioners know that early intervention and effective co-ordination between line management, HR and occupational health is critical to early resolution.

The absence of a critical staff member of long term sick leave can have a severe impact on a business and create significant operational challenges for managers and co-workers. How can your average small business respond to cope effectively with such a situation?

The reality is that in many cases that they simply don’t cope effectively. Efforts are usually focussed on managing the operational and financial problems resulting from the absence rather than managing the absent individual. If there is any hint of underlying stress or strain in the psychological relationship in the run up to the absence, contact may be confined to receipt of doctor’s certificates and the occasional text and phone call.

Where there are any work related problems contributing to the ongoing absence, whether real or perceived, the reality can often be an employment relationship that is suspended in limbo. Employees who consult legal advisors will often be advised to ‘sit it out’ due to the uphill battle that is a typical constructive dismissal application. Employers may be reluctant to contact or meet with the employee, for fear of aggravating any allegation of work related stress or simply due to operational business pressures.

From the employee perspective, this increases the risk of isolation and increased deterioration in work skills as the employee is left ‘out there’ and increasingly divorced from the day to day realities of the business. From the employer’s situation, even the most genuine situation can result in a build up in frustration and negative feelings due to ongoing uncertainty regarding the continued relationship and the operational difficulties associated with managing the absence.

From experience, practitioners know that in terms of occupational health and relationship management, not actively managing the situation can often the worst possible strategy. Whilst ‘cooling off’ periods may be helpful in some situations, this is not usually the case. Perceptions of underlying problems in the employment relationship may become polarised and the resulting communication vacuum may fundamentally undermine a psychological relationship between employer and employee which may previously have been only slightly strained. This can be damaging to any employment relationship but can be fatal in a small company where redeployment opportunities and management resources are limited.

In previous times, chances are that many potential problem situations were avoided in the SME sector as employees may simply have elected to change job. Today however, due to increased personal stress on both employers and employees and the shortage of alternative job opportunities it is more likely to manifest itself, rightly or wrongly in allegations of bullying or stress claims, recurrent absenteeism , or even presenteeism (where an employee reports for work when unfit to do so resulting in productivity issues). Add this to an Irish culture of indirect communication where difficult conversations are often avoided until it’s too late and a small business environment whereby financial and operational performance information rarely gets successfully translated from the manager to the factory floor.

The result is a recipe for potential damaging and costly litigation all round.

One solution is to utilise the services of an independent HR practitioner in an absence management/return to work co-ordination role. Operating with the consent of employer and employee in individual situations, the independent practioner works directly with the employee and, with employee consent, the employee’s own medical practitioner, to identify and if possible, remove barriers to an early and successful return to work. Any underlying human resources issues can, if possible, be addressed and the time consuming role of co-ordinating the ongoing absence from work can be delegated. Medical evidence can be reviewed regularly and medical reviews by occupational health practitioners arranged on behalf of the employer.

 Where a full return to work is not possible or likely to be a success, an existing neutral process is already in place whereby alternative solutions can be safely explored. The result can be an effective outsourcing of a difficult and specialist function which is outside the skills and experience of most small business managers.

The role of the independent practitioner in such situations is not to act as an advocate or advisor to either employer or employee, but rather to explore and facilitate options for resolution in a low risk environment. From the employee’s perspective, the mechanism provides a supportive environment from which to explore any underlying issues in the work relationship and to remove potential barriers to a successful return to work. From a business perspective, using an independent practitioner provides an external viewpoint into the organisation which can be evaluated using clear, measurable, parameters.

Employment relationships are a large investment for small businesses and a scarce commodity these days for employees. It’s time we actively explore innovative mechanisms which seek to support and preserve such resources in a cost effective manner.