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Absence management: What's the point of triggers?

An organisation that doesn't have an absence management procedure incorporating measurement and analysis of absence will have no idea if there's a problem, let alone be able to identify ways of dealing with it.

Significant cost savings can be made through effective absence management, which may include setting targets and 'triggers'. Research has shown that eight out of ten employers who set collective targets think they are a successful tool in managing absence. Nine out of ten thought the use of triggers had been very or fairly successful in helping to manage absence.

Trigger points tell managers when they should be taking action about staff absence. During periods of extended absence, they could be used to define points when an organisation might ask to see medical certificates, when they might make contact by phone or in person, when they might ask for a formal prognosis from a health professional, and to determine when occupational sick pay might run out.

Triggers can also be used for recurrent short-term absence, which accounts for two-thirds of workplace absence. In such situations, the trigger lets managers know they may need to work with a certain employee on finding ways to improve attendance.

It's not always easy to spot patterns of recurring short-term absence. Ways of identifying it include the Bradford Factor (also known as the Bradford formula or index), which gives extra weight to the number of absences as opposed to their duration, so that a large number of short absences scores much higher than a couple of long ones. Many organisations use a combination of measures, but if an individual passes a certain score, then the trigger is activated.

The system of triggers, the scores used, and the action to be taken should be reached through agreement, such as a joint working group with employee or union representatives. But even if pre-agreed triggers have been set off, managers should show sensitivity and treat each case on its merits. For example, it's unlikely to be fruitful to treat a short-term temporary illness, involving a burst of recurrent absences as a disciplinary matter.

Some managers say that triggers can inadvertently foster an 'us and them' culture. Some recommend taking simple action long before a trigger kicks in - perhaps by having a quiet word with an individual after any absence to check they are well and feeling fit to work. This can give the message that an organisation is supportive about staff wellbeing and takes any absence seriously.

Acas offers detailed information on Managing absence, and has published the Advisory booklet - Managing attendance and employee turnover. Acas also runs practical training courses on matters concerning Absence, including Creating an attendance culture.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects page for more information.

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