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Complete Guide on Managing Absences (with expert advice) for 2023

Managing employees’ absences can soon turn into a nerve-wracking task when you’ve never been responsible for it: who is off? Who is going to be off? How can I take unauthorised absences into account?

Small businesses and startups can struggle with understanding what the best way to go about it may be, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.

One thing I learned in my HR career is to never run away from complicated tasks, but rather to dig straight into them as small problems can turn into big issues.

In this guide, I’ll let you in on how we manage absences at CharlieHR – our small business of roughly 50 people – and hopefully, you can take some of this knowledge away and apply something similar at your own company.

What is absence management for your small business or startup?

Absence management can be defined in two ways:

  • Making sure your business can still function despite absences
  • Looking for ways to reduce employee absenteeism so it doesn’t become an issue

The types of absences you can have in a business are very diverse. Here are the ones we allow for at CharlieHR:

  • Holidays – paid time off for team members to relax and take some time away from work
  • Sick pay – paid sick leave where we allow for more than the Statutory allowance
  • Personal Days – paid time off for the odd day when someone in the team is feeling low on energy
  • Compassionate leave – when someone is experiencing bereavement and needs time off to grieve or to help a family member
  • Unpaid leave – in exceptional circumstances, and if a team member really needs to take time off, we’ll allow them to take unpaid leave

On top of this, we also allow our team members flexibility with no fixed hours and the ability to live anywhere in the UK as well as work for a limited time period each year in a different time zone.

That’s a lot of possibilities for our team to be absent from work, that’s part of the reason why we had to iterate our absence policies: to find the right balance between offering the team the time they needed to recharge, whilst making sure the business didn't suffer from too many absences.

Just to name a few, we decided to remove our Christmas break (which was on top of our regular holiday allowance) and limit our personal day allowance to a maximum of four per year.

If you want to build a successful business, I would strongly advise you to do the same and review the current policies you have in place on a regular basis, always testing what works best for your team and your business.

However, these changes cannot be implemented all at once. You need time and consideration before deciding to remove a limit or increase it.

Now that we've clarified what we mean by employee absences, let's have a look at how to best manage them at your small business or startup.

5 essential steps to manage absences at your small business or startup

In my experience, the best way to avoid absenteeism is to create an environment where everyone naturally has your business' interest at heart. This sounds simple, but it is actually extremely difficult to achieve.

It’s a fragile balance to maintain, and it takes a lot of research and communication skills to be able to achieve it. That’s why having a clear method to manage time off is crucial for you. Let’s see what that looks like.

1.Create an absence policy

HR policies might not look like the priority for your small business, but it’s vital you start to implement them in the early days, so that:

  • You avoid friction between team members as the rules are the same for everyone
  • You codify guidance into concrete policies to refer to when a problem arises
  • Your team members will have no doubt about when they can or need to take time off  

Creating HR policies for absences means you need to cover everything, from long-term sickness to mental health absences.

Time off policies can include a lot of different types of absence You might miss some in the first instances, but that’s why creating policies is a work of observation: look for opportunities to iterate so the business can function properly.

Perhaps when the time comes, you’ll want to think about hiring an HR professional – like the ones we have here at Charlie – to support your work.

Another aspect I’d like to highlight is how you should ensure this information is available to team members at all times.

Here’s for example what policies look like if you choose to pick HR software that displays your handbook.

employee handbook in CharlieHR managing absences

That will allow your team members to have access to it at any time, and in my case, it cuts the need for people to go directly to me for answers to their questions.

2.Be flexible in your approach to working patterns

As much as you’d like your team members to attend work every day at the same time, it can be difficult to achieve for them as life can often get in the way.

If team members have children, are carers, or are disabled, they can often deal with unexpected situations that cannot wait and therefore need to take time off.

What you need to remember is that flexibility will be key here to avoid any discrimination or inequality towards your employees.

A flexible approach to work will not only help you create a more inclusive organisation, but it will also significantly reduce the number of absences.

For example, instead of getting parents to take a sick day to care for a sick child, put together a working from home policy for your team, to allow for that extra flexibility

And if they have to attend a GP appointment, allow for flexible hours so they can start work earlier or finish later to make up for the time they’re away.

At Charlie, for example, we prefer the term hybrid working to flexible working, but it works towards the same goals:

  • Reducing the number of absence
  • Making team members feel in control and autonomous
  • Reinforcing discretionary effort for the company

3. Spot patterns in absences and iterate your rules and policies

To be able to manage employee absence in a way that makes sense for your business, you need to be able to spot issues and patterns straight away.

Let’s say for example that your company is closed for two weeks around Christmas and that you don’t allow for time off to be booked before or after – and despite this, many team members try and get this time booked off anyway.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit that policy and make sure it’s fair to everyone. Whatever policy you’re looking to change, it will all depend on the unique circumstances of your company.

In my opinion, the early days at startups and small businesses are essential to experiment, and once you grow, you might need to go back on these experiments and tweak your policies.

You shouldn’t be afraid to make these changes as this is the natural evolution of your company. However, rather than making a decision based on an assumption, I would always advise relying on data to make your decisions.

That’s where having automatic reports pulled from your HR software might be helpful to understand what type of time off is taken, when and why.

time off report managing absences

This will enable you to make sure you keep a fair decision process for you and your team members. Whatever change you decide to make, you’ll be able to show your team clear data to back it up.

Have a look at our guide on employee time off tracking if that can help as well. Some people also like to follow methods such as the Bradford calculator.  

4. Support your team members with different initiatives

Iterating your policies is essential, but it's not enough. In my experience, absenteeism problems often arise when employers don't offer the right amount of support to their teams.

What does that mean in practice?

Again, it’s really dependent on what you’ve observed on the reports and what absences are a problem.

For example, if you notice some team members take significantly more time off compared to others, don’t cut to the chase and put the blame on them. Approach them and ask what might have been happening.

When it comes to mental health issues for example, and if you know many people are struggling with it, have a therapy service on hand that your team members can use as well as other wellbeing tools.

These initiatives are really significant to shape the rest of your HR policies.

At Charlie, we also make sure our managers are trained in order to understand mental health and be advocates for it so they can spot and support their team.

Another aspect you might want to focus on is ensuring your team members have the right skills as well as a manageable workload to avoid any sort of burnout.

Again, it depends on your unique circumstances and what would be best for your team and your business.

5. Manage expectations and deal with poor employee attendance

Supporting team members is, of course, one of the pillars of managing absences, but you might also have to address poor employee attendance if your absence rates are through the roof.

This is never a situation that we, as managers, like to be confronted with but it’s very important to tackle any serious absenteeism problems as soon as possible as they could seriously harm your business.

Here are a few tips from me when it comes to it:

  • Depending on what your policy is, nudge people regarding absences such as sick days if there’s a limit to them
  • Train managers to handle absences and keep open communication about what’s going on in their team member’s lives, so they can provide adequate support
  • Always address situations directly as soon as they happen
  • Hold informal conversations if you wish, but you can also choose to hold formal return-to-work conversations if you think that would have more of an impact on your team members

Again, this isn’t about punishing anyone but rather understanding what has led to the absences and perhaps working together to find solutions.

For example, there may be reasonable adjustments that can be made to help employees cope with long-term sick leave.

At times, you might have to consider disciplinary actions and you might want to seek advice from an HR professional on how to deal with it.

How should you record and report on absences?

As mentioned before, pulling out reports is imperative to understand when and why your team members are taking time off, so you can iterate on your policies and make the best decisions for your business.

There are a few solutions available on the market to record and report absences, but the most efficient way to do it is to invest in HR software.

At Charlie, we’ve built software that’s specifically designed for you, because we understand the challenges that come with running a small business – for example, how time-consuming recording time off and reporting on absences really is.  

Using HR software means removing human error with a process that runs itself on one unique platform – managers can approve or deny requests in one click whilst seeing overlapping time off and getting allowances and carry over leave updated automatically.

Time off requests screenshot managing absences

As important as it is, reporting can be difficult when you’re juggling between emails, calendars and spreadsheets (such as a Google Sheet holiday tracker for example).

For me, reporting has been a breeze since I started working at Charlie. No need to block an entire day to do it – our software does it all for me and I can export it on a spreadsheet if I need.

time off report in CharlieHR managing absences

Once all that is done, you’re ready to deal with absences at your business – I hope this was useful, but perhaps you’d like to go further and have a look to understand what is annual leave and what it means for small businesses and startups.