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Collecting data about employees’ sickness-related absences can reveal much about the health of a company’s workforce, although the underlying causes are trickier to interpret. A surge in sick days may reflect a rise in flu rates, or alternatively that employees are overloaded.

In addition, while the data promise to be useful for managers, there are questions over when monitoring workforce health could tip into an invasion of privacy.

Companies that help relieve bosses from the task of fielding calls from under-the-weather employees and processing sick notes from family doctors have been around for decades. Latterly, however, some have emerged as providers of software-based tools that automate the process. They calculate the price of poor attendance, nudge line managers to maintain contact with recuperating staff, and sift workforce records for hidden patterns in the data, such as recurrent absences and spikes in sickness coinciding with long weekends and sporting events.

Absence management businesses tell stories of scams that data analysis has uncovered, such as the team that operates a “sickness rota”, in which they take turns to call in sick. Advocates say that data analysis can also prompt questions when management failings lie at the root of absenteeism.

Michael Arkins, international HR director at Fleetmatics, a Dublin-based subsidiary of Verizon Telematics, says studying data collected with Activ Absence software led his company to ask why sickness levels recorded in one of its offices overseas were unusually high. The problem turned out to be the local leadership, and was handled by making changes to the team and providing training. “A [few] dominant personalities were basically making the experience of employment unpleasant,” he says.

Analysing aggregated data that have been anonymised can suggest strategies for mitigating or preventing work-related health problems, says Alaana Linney, commercial and business development director at Nuffield Health, a private healthcare provider that works with employers on health and well­being. She says one client introduced on-site physiotherapy after spotting that many of its engineers were reporting muscular-skeletal problems. Other clients have calculated the cost of working days lost to flu and now offer employees free vaccinations.

Absence data can also be analysed by individual employee and fed back as alerts and reports for line managers to review, which is where problems over interpretation can occur. A pattern of recurrent absence can have various causes, from ill health to gaming the system. “[Data analysis] can highlight when someone has a tendency to always take a day of absence at the end of a vacation,” says Ben Georgiades, an industry specialist at Kronos, a US-based workforce management company. “You wouldn’t necessarily see that from a cursory overview of performance.”

Although the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect in May, toughens the requirements on employers to store data securely and inform staff of the specific use to which their data will be put, the degree to which employees’ privacy rights are protected still partly depends on local practice.

For example, employers in Germany may be subject to additional controls on how absence data are used. “Quite often a labour agreement between a German employer and a works council will specify that data captured by time and attendance systems cannot be used for coaching and performance reviews,” says Mr Georgiades.

The evolution of data gathering technologies raises broader security-related challenges. Noting the spread of clocking-in methods that use biometrics such as fingerprint and iris recognition in place of conventional ways to log attendance, Clare Murray, managing partner of her own employment law firm in London, encourages employers to consider the potential repercussions for individuals and society if data are hacked or misused. She suggests employers should ask themselves: “Is it proportionate for me to hold someone’s biological personal data, just so I know when they come in and go out?”

Whether employees view absence management technologies as snooping devices will ultimately depend on how they are put to use.

Time-keeping is an example. A company could configure its system to record anyone who is even a minute late to start work, although to do so would almost certainly both produce an avalanche of lateness reports and be resented. “Quite often a system can get a bad reputation because there hasn’t been a discussion of what it’s meaningful [to record],” says Mr Georgiades.

A 2016 report published by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development highlighted that “initiatives to get people back to work will be shortlived if their working environment does not support health and wellbeing”.

That means organisations training line managers to broach awkward discussions over absence and supporting people with problems to get well. Otherwise, businesses that rely on the metrics and alerts that absence management systems churn out might end up in the paradoxical situation of driving up attendance, while the workforce disengages mentally.

As Matthew Lawrence, a health consultant at professional services firm Aon, puts it: when a staff member is absent there are “clear hard costs” that can be quantified. At the same time, there is also a hidden “cost-related side to presenteeism”, he says, which is only made worse when unwell employees feel under pressure to keep working, however unproductively.

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