Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) is a not-for-profit property management company based in Rochdale, Lancashire. The organisation manages over 14,000 council homes on behalf of Rochdale Council and has around 650 employees. Personnel manager Elaine Taylor explains how introducing proactive measures to monitor and improve staff attendance has almost halved absence levels and contributed to a healthier and more motivated workforce.
What I did
Tackle the issue head-on
"Six years ago, when RBH was created from one of the old Rochdale Council departments, absenteeism was running at 18 days per employee per year. It was clear to the new management team that while there was an absence policy in place, it wasn't being fully adhered to. Reporting procedures were inconsistent, communication was patchy and the information available to managers was poor.
"We knew that overhauling the system wouldn't happen overnight, so before we evaluated longer-term options, we took some immediate action to stem the tide. The main thing was to tighten up the application of existing procedures. Line managers were given frontline responsibility, making it mandatory for absent employees to speak directly to their manager and to attend a back-to-work interview on their return. This sent a clear message that we were taking absence seriously and rates began to drop."
Review the system
"Once we had started to regain control, we undertook a thorough review of the absence policy and procedures. Assessing costs against potential benefits, we identified a range of solutions that would supplement the improvements we'd already made. One of these was to introduce an externally managed nurse-led helpline. Employees now call our service provider's contact centre to report a sickness absence to a qualified nurse, who provides immediate advice, then follows up as appropriate to monitor the illness. All the details are fed back online to our managers, giving them a level and quality of information that wasn't previously available.
"The second step was to review and change the 'trigger' point at which formal action would begin, in line with sector benchmarks. The third step was the introduction of a basic healthcare plan for all employees. We were concerned about the potential cost, but following research, we joined a scheme run by our local Chamber of Commerce, which proved extremely cost-effective.
"At all stages, we were careful to consult fully with staff and unions and to communicate new procedures as clearly as possible. We also began including absence as a topic in all inductions and introduced monitoring, with monthly reports and regular meetings to review long-term absence cases and analyse absence patterns."
Make employee health a priority
"As each new measure was implemented, we saw a positive effect on absence rates and morale, which inspired us to do even more. We have gradually introduced a series of additional health initiatives, such as health promotion events and self-care training courses, run with help from the NHS. We also actively thank employees for good attendance - including a £50 gift voucher for every employee with a 100 per cent attendance record - and highlight improvements made via our corporate newsletter.
"There have been costs involved in the new system, but they're easy to justify when you offset them against the greater costs of lost productivity. On balance, we calculate that we've saved about £200,000 per year.
"Overall, the benefits of prioritising employee well-being on top of effective absence management have been considerable. Productivity has increased, staff feel more valued and motivated and teams are under less stress because they're not constantly having to cover for absences. It's taken time and commitment to change the culture, but our absence rates are now down to less than ten days per employee per year."
What I'd do differently
Streamline data compilation
"When we first introduced the new system, we were still compiling sickness returns for payroll purposes using clock cards. This was extremely time-consuming and looking back, we should have tackled that sooner. It was a year before we streamlined the process - now all the data is pulled together by our service provider."