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  • Lee Calver
  • 7 October 2014
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CIPD urges employers to support workers with caring responsibilities in its latest absence management report

A new report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) looking into absence management in the workplace has revealed some startling figures that are sure to make employers take a look at their current stance and perhaps a number of their policies.

The latest CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management Survey, published yesterday, found that while more than a third of employers are witnessing increasing absence levels because staff are struggling to balance caring responsibilities with work, just one in six organisations have policies in place to help employees achieve a better balance between their home and working lives.

Dr Jill Miller, CIPD Research Adviser, and author of the report explained that the number of people with caring responsibilities is only going to increase over time as employees juggle both childcare and looking after parents in the ‘ageing baby boomer generation’. As a result, Jill Miller warns that HR must support employees to help balance their work and home lives.

She went onto say:

“Supporting those with caring responsibilities to balance their work and home lives, and therefore retaining our talent, is a key issue. Recent UKCES research has predicted that there will be four generations working side-by-side by 2030. With this 4G UK workforce, employers are having to manage an increasingly diverse range of employee needs.

“We’re seeing intergenerational issues coming to the fore; and in particular, a rise in the number of people with caring responsibilities. And this is an issue that is set to increase for the growing ‘sandwich generation.’ As people have children later, and are looking after parents in the ageing baby boomer generation, they find themselves caring for both their children and their older relatives.”

Miller continued:

“It’s therefore absolutely vital that employers have strong wellbeing policies in place, and communicate the benefits of flexible working to their employees, who all have the right to request to work flexibly under new legislation. But most importantly, line managers need to receive adequate training on how to have constructive discussions with their staff about the various benefits available to them.

“And it’s proven that flexible working can improve engagement and productivity within the workforce. With this in mind, hopefully in the future more workers will be able to handle the demands of caring.”

According to the CIPD’s 15th national survey of absence management trends, ‘savvy’ employers are putting policies in place to help staff fulfil their caring responsibilities outside of work while continuing to meet the demands of their job.

It discovered that flexible working arrangements are by far the most common type of support (68%). Over half (53%) offered compassionate leave and (paid or unpaid) carers' leave (48%), while 42% provided access to counselling services. Three in ten offered career breaks and sabbaticals, one in six (17%) offered access to financial services and a further 15% provided options to purchase additional annual leave days.

As well as only one in six employers stating that they have organisation wide policies or guidelines in place for carers, only an additional two fifths reported that they offer support to individuals on an ad hoc basis. As Dr Jill Miller expressed, the CIPD is now calling on more businesses to adopt a formal policy to support workers, which it says will ultimately benefit business.

Other findings

Presenteeism

The survey also shows that overall absence levels have dropped from 7.6 days per year to 6.6 (public sector: 7.9, private sector: 5.5, voluntary sector: 7.4). According to the research, this could be down to the fact that there has been a significant rise in the number of employees attending work whilst feeling ill. More than a third of employers surveyed revealed employees have been struggling in to work whilst sick, which is a trend known as ‘presenteeism’.

Stress and mental health

According to the findings, stress and mental health problems in the workplace also remain high, with more than 40% of employers citing an increase, while nearly the same number of employers reported an increase in stress-related absence over the past year. The survey revealed that larger employers and those in the public sector are more likely to report an increase in stress-related absence.

While there is an increased focus on stress management, a third of those who rank stress as a top cause of absence aren’t actually taking any steps to address it.

The most popular methods to identify and reduce workplace stress were found to be staff surveys, risk assessments / stress audits and flexible working options / improved work-life balance.

Commenting, Dr Jill Miller said:

“On the face of it, these figures look positive as overall absence levels have dropped by a whole day. Yet it’s clear that there are underlying deeper issues, with many employers telling us that employees are still struggling into work whilst sick, whilst others are struggling to manage work with home responsibilities.

“These pressures can have an extremely negative impact on the workforce. It’s important that employers address this presenteeism, in particular looking at managing workloads, so that when people are off sick they feel they can stay at home and recuperate before coming back to work.”

Additional findings employers should be aware of

Cost of absence

  • Monitoring the actual costs associated with employee absence still isn’t that common – under two-fifths of employers do it.
  • Because of the varying ways that employers use to calculate costs, the survey considers the median figure the most reliable.
  • Overall there’s been little change in the median cost of absence per employee over the past few years (£609), although this year it has increased substantially in the public sector (£914). The median costs for others are: manufacturing and production and private sector services - £520; not-for-profit sector - £611.

Causes of absence

  • Minor illness remains the most common cause of short-term absence (four weeks or less), followed by musculoskeletal injuries, back pain and stress. 
  • Overall, nearly a third of employers (30%) report that non-genuine absence is one of their top causes of short-term absence for manual workers and 18% for non-manual workers. Employers who use flexible working to manage absence are significantly less likely to include illegitimate absence among their top five causes of short-term absence.
  • The most common causes of long-term absence are acute medical conditions, stress, musculoskeletal injuries, mental ill health, and back pain.
  • Public sector organisations are more likely than the private sector to report that stress and musculoskeletal injuries are among their most common causes of long-term absence.

Expert comments

Head of HR at Simplyhealth, Corinne Williams, stated:

“Adapting both working practices and health and wellbeing initiatives to support the changing needs of today’s modern workforce is a must for organisations.

“The expectation that employees conform to rigid working patterns is becoming a thing of the past as demands on an individual’s time continue to increase. This ‘sandwich’ generation are operating at capacity and it’s essential that they receive as much support as possible to help them meet their commitments at home as well as at work.”

Williams added:

“Although it’s great to see that this year a fifth of organisations have increased their wellbeing spend, it needn’t cost the earth. Understanding the issues affecting your employees and equipping line management with the tools they need to help support them is key to a healthy, happy workforce.”

Carers UK Director of Policy, Emily Holzhausen, said:

"Three million people are juggling work with caring for an older or disabled loved one.

"Without the right policies in the workplace and the support of good quality, flexible and affordable care services, these employees often feel unable to juggle it all, with millions feeling they have no alternative but to give up work to care. We estimate this costs business £3.5bn a year, with extra costs to the economy and to the families themselves in lost earnings and pensions."

Whilst there clearly are positives to take from this recent study, the CIPD seems determined to ensure that employers take a very clear message away and implement some new policies within their organisation, which it insists will not only benefit your employees, but also the business itself.

Now the CIPD has had its say, we want you to express your opinions. Tell us if you agree with the report’s suggestions and will begin to look at changing certain policies. Or are you happy with things how they currently are and don’t see the need to make any alterations? Whatever your views, share them with us in our latest forum discussion group. Simply comment in the box below, or click here to see the most recent comments.