Avoid these 5 pitfalls in SME absenteeism

By: Jennifer Lijcklama à Nijeholt of PWNet
Source: PWNet

Small and medium-sized businesses in particular, with limited available staff and resources, often struggle with proper absence management. What solutions can HR apply? Rik Berghout, owner of HR consultancy Panthion, and Tom van Ruler, absenteeism case manager, share common mistakes they see in SMEs. Both provide daily advice to HR professionals and executives who perform HR duties on dealing with sick employees.

Pitfall 1: acting too late on absenteeism

Not all small employers know what steps are required when an employee has a long-term illness. As a result, you quickly fall behind. “Regularly I see that an employer only takes action when business operations stagnate,” Berghout said. “As a result, the second track is sometimes started too late. It is not always clear to the employer what the legal obligations are or what agreements are in place with the UWV.”

Van Ruler also recognizes that SMEs often don’t know what to do when an employee is sick. “An employer usually assumes that an employee will return. That it will resolve itself. But that is not always the case. Certainly not if the employee has complaints that you can’t see on the outside, such as psychological complaints. As a result, legal administrative steps are sometimes carried out too late, such as drawing up an action plan. Or the company doctor is called in too late.”

Here’s what you can do to avoid this trap:

  • When in doubt after calling in sick, contact the occupational health and safety service
    Van Ruler recommends involving the occupational health and safety service or company doctor sooner rather than later in absenteeism. If there is warm contact with these parties, you can move quickly and take action. For example, to help an employee sustainably reintegrate into the workplace. The case manager of the health and safety service can help with the legal process. He can point this out in a timely manner and help with implementation.
  • Establish an absenteeism policy
    Agreements on what parties can expect help to move quickly through illness. What should an employee do when he calls in sick? What is the role of the employer? Who contacts whom? When do you call in the occupational health and safety service? Without a clear policy, or short lines of communication with the various parties, it can take weeks before anything is set in motion.
  • Stay in touch with the employee
    Make sure you stay in touch with the employee. Too often a sick employee disappears off the radar. All the while, the return threshold must remain low, Berghout says. “So don’t wait. Keep giving a lot of attention to the employee and actively ask if the employee needs anything. That helps before returning.”

Pitfall 2: no investment in absence prevention, vitality and sustainable employability

Often in SMEs, you have to explain why investing in human resources adds value, Berghout knows. “Emphasize to management that a sick employee leads to lost production, just as a departing employee does.” Van Ruler: “Yes, investing in absence prevention costs money and time. But it delivers much more than doing nothing. Besides the loss of production, you have to take into account the cost of a reintegration program.” Consider the use of professionals such as company doctors, labor experts and reintegration coaches in track two.

Here’s what you can do to avoid this trap:

  • Emphasize that employers are more than providers of labor
    SMEs are quick to think they can continue as they have always done, Berghout says. But those employers are not making it in today’s tight labor market. “If you want to remain attractive as an employer, you also have to show what you can contribute in vitality and sustainable employability. Indeed, the labor shortage looks set to continue for years to come. It is not necessarily unwillingness on the part of employers not to invest in employee wellness with a variety of vitality programs, but rather ignorance or incompetence. The operational, reactive aspect of absenteeism has always been central. I am sometimes really pioneering with employers in SMEs when it comes to preventive absenteeism investments.” Depending on the needs of your employees, you can offer a course on sleeping better, for example, or setting boundaries. Anything to keep employees motivated and healthy at work.
  • Get relevant absenteeism figures
    General statistics on the cost of absenteeism don’t mean much to an SME entrepreneur, Berghout knows from experience. Therefore, as an HR person, help the business owner interpret their own absence figures. “If he knows that six days of absenteeism cost about the same as a preventive absenteeism program – which costs about 1,500 euros – then suddenly that investment is negligible.”

Pitfall 3: the director doesn’t talk about human resources

Many SME employers are primarily focused on revenue and numbers, Berghout says. Conversations with employees about what is going on in the workplace are less frequent. He has little control over that.

Here’s what you can do to avoid this trap:

  • Have regular discussions with the director about absenteeism (reasons)
    It is difficult for the employer to anticipate absenteeism with investments if he is not informed about it. Says Berghout, “There is remarkably often a career question or work-life imbalance behind absenteeism.” Van Ruler: “I talk to people who are rehabbing and realize after a few weeks that they don’t want to return, for example, because of the workload and don’t want to knock themselves on the same stone. The employer can solve a lot by offering a coach or other specialists to employees for guidance.” Van Ruler indicates that it is good as an HR to name the employer’s duty of care. If an employer arranges matters around absenteeism well, the employer usually finds that the duty of care is not as great, he knows from experience.
  • Show genuine consideration for the employee
    Usually, a manager knows intimately what is going on within a team. In any case, it is good to encourage active interest among executives. Then you find out what’s going on with the employee, Van Ruler says. “It already helps tremendously to periodically have a cup of coffee with an employee and engage in conversation, which is far from always happening. Show genuine interest and occasionally ask how someone is doing. If an employee indicates that things are not going well, as an employer you can always organize a preventive medical consultation with the company doctor.”

Pitfall 4: few agreements with the occupational health and safety service

Employees and employers may feel they are being controlled when the health and safety service calls, Van Ruler says. Berghout: “And that while the health and safety service is really meant to be a partner to work with. Unfortunately, too often employers are affiliated with a health and safety service out of legal obligation. It is then no more than a formality. In my experience, health and safety services also have a reactive attitude,” says Berghout. “They only contact us when something comes up.”

Here’s what you can do to avoid this trap:

  • Make sure you sit down at least annually with the occupational health and safety service
    Do this to evaluate, or consider, what can be done preventively to avoid absenteeism, suggests Berghout. Not just when someone neglects. The occupational health and safety service also does not contact you quickly without someone being sick. Therefore, you should actively contact the occupational health and safety service. And often HR or a manager then notices, after a few conversations, that the health and safety service is really there to help, Van Ruler says. For advice on interventions – for example, around workload and a workload survey – or to encourage HR to engage with a supervisor.
  • Call health and safety service too often rather than too little
    “Ask too many questions rather than too few,” says Van Ruler. “It’s a shame when a relationship manager does see opportunities that HR misses because they don’t ask about them.” The employer then needs to know who to call, Berghout explained. This sometimes makes contact with health and safety services especially difficult. “The health and safety services are large, there needs to be purposeful investment in the relationship with a relationship manager.”

Pitfall 5: employees do not speak up enough because of close ties

In many SMEs, there is a family culture. People have been working with each other for years, and in that context, it is sometimes precisely difficult to indicate that there is conflict, or that someone’s leadership style is not to their liking, Van Ruler knows. While that kind of psychological strain can really start to bother an employee, leading to attrition or dismissal.

Here’s what you can do to avoid this trap:

  • Organize employee participation moments on a periodic basis
    This can be organized by the Works Council or employee representation, but it can also be an item on the agenda in normal meetings. Says Berghout, “What emerges from those conversations can be further explored in a training session, for example.”
  • Engage third parties to engage with employees
    Consider what options you can offer in SMEs to encourage conversation in the workplace, Van Ruler recommends. For example, encourage conversations with the support of a third party. Says Berghout, “We are sometimes hired to have individual conversations with employees when the director finds out what’s going on. Employees appreciate that when that happens. That they can speak out anonymously and we as an independent party can advise the employer.” That party can then represent the workers’ interests to the employer.

Timeline steps for long-term absence in a row

  • Employee calls in sick
  • Week 1 of absenteeism: the employer reports the illness to the occupational health and safety service or company doctor
  • Week 6 (at the latest): the company doctor or occupational health and safety service draws up the problem analysis
  • Week 8 (at the latest): the employer and employee draw up the plan of action
  • Week 42: the employer reports the employee sick to the UWV
  • Week 52: the employer sets up a first-year evaluation with the employee
  • Week 88: the employee receives a WIA application form from the UWV
  • Week 91: employer prepares final evaluation
  • Week 93 (at the latest): the employee makes the WIA application, in consultation with the employer

Also read: With these steps, you won’t forget anything when applying for WIA

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