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Flexible working - reducing absenteeism

23rd Apr 2007 - 00:00
It is estimated that employee absenteeism costs British industry £11.6 billion every year. In its report entitled 'In Sickness and In Health' in 2005, the charity Working Families concluded that flexible working can be an effective tool in reducing absenteeism. Debbie Sadler, of the Employment team at leading law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, discusses how.
The report by the charity which promotes family-friendly policies was based on responses from 2,500 small and large employers and will no doubt be of interest to all firms concerned with absentee levels. Certainly the law seems to encourage this type of approach. Paternity and adoption leave have been introduced, as has the right to request flexible working arrangements (in 2003) and parents are increasingly taking advantage of these provisions. But flexible working is not something that should be offered and enjoyed solely by parents. Workplace stress, managing caring responsibilities and managing other work-life issues are cited as the three major contributory factors to absenteeism. Some people find they have to use part of their holiday entitlement to deal with emergencies, or to wait for the gas man or plumber to attend a property, leaving them with fewer holidays to take a well-earned break. This affects their physical and mental health, attitude to work and sometimes leads to taking a number of days off sick. In the past, some organisations have approached flexible working with great scepticism, perhaps viewing it as an opportunity for staff to abuse their trust. However, employers who have adopted these policies have reported the converse, with greater commitment from staff who were willing to work flexibly and carry out overtime in line with business needs. One city council adopted a flexible working pilot scheme with two teams. A number of teething problems and staff concerns were encountered initially, but after six months, the pilot was rated a 100% success by team members and was extended to all staff. Staff said that they felt 'happier' and 'more trusted', were less stressed - at work and at home - and 65% of the team members said their productivity and efficiency had improved. Significantly, sickness absence levels were down by one third on the previous year, there were fewer resignations, and vacancies for positions with flexible hours and homeworking received the highest number of applications. The council also noted a marked improvement in workplace culture, particularly in colleague and manager relationships. Flexible working policies were also found not to compromise service. The key to the introduction of any flexible working policy is staff involvement. Employees are often suspicious of changes to their working conditions and it is important to discuss changes beforehand to address employee concerns. Staff who are happy with their work and feel valued by their employer are less likely to be absent and more likely to work harder and more effectively for their employer. This is inevitably translated into improved customer service levels. Of course there will always be staff who are generally too unwell to attend work and for whom rest and recuperation at home is the best option. But it is the rise of stress-related illnesses, caused by the pressures of modern life, that can perhaps best be allayed by the adoption of a more flexible approach. Employers who adapt to and respond to modern trends will not only have a more effective work force but will also find recruitment generally to be less of an issue. For further information, please contact Debbie Sadler at Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons on email:, via 02380 631823 or visit
Written by
PSC Team