Report summary: Measuring and Monitoring Absence from Work

Controlling sickness absence has become a priority on many management agendas, following recent changes in Statutory Sick Pay arrangements. Like many people management issues, our ability to manage absence effectively is enhanced by accurate, timely and accessible information. This report aims to provide line and Human Resources managers with some tools and techniques to help them quantify, monitor and manage the problem of sickness absence.


Previous research suggests that, in tackling sickness absence, a number of success factors can be identified. These include:

  • high level management commitment
  • clear responsibilities
  • appropriate information
  • suitably trained line managers
  • attention to staff welfare.

Respondents to a number of recent surveys have rated improved monitoring and the provision of absence statistics to line managers as two of the three most important factors which they thought would, or had actually, helped to reduce sickness absence in their businesses. However, few organisations actually make best use of the sickness absence information which they have available.

Measuring Absence

The most commonly used method of expressing the level of sickness absence is the crude absence rate. This is usually calculated as the time lost due to, or ascribed to, sickness absence as a percentage of contracted working time in a defined period

  • The advantage of this measure is that it answers a basic question which all mangers should be asking: ‘what proportion of time do I get from my staff?’. It is comparatively simple to calculate and can be used for costing purposes. Calculating absence rates by staff group, department or function can help to identify particular problem areas.


The main limitation of crude absence rates is well known. The time lost may consist of a small number of people absent for long periods or a large number absent for short periods. As a result, absence rates may be relatively stable over time even though the number of staff absent may be increasing and the duration of absence falling and vice versa.

Comparison of absence rates can give rise to false conclusions if elementary indices such as number of absences and duration, are not also provided.

Frequency & Duration Measures

In order to avoid the principle problem with absence rates, managers require a measure of how widespread the problem is.

Measures of absence frequency provide a better indicator of short-term absence than the absence rate and may be a more valuable measure in planning absence control. Three measures of absence frequency are described in the report:

  • the absence frequency rate
  • the individual frequency rate
  • the incidence rate.

Absence inception measures are similar to frequency measures. They can be used in monitoring and forecasting absence levels and can be used as ‘triggers’ for management intervention. Comparison of inception rates over time can be used to show whether patterns of absence are stable or not and to establish whether more spells of absence have been started, or whether more staff have started spells of absence.

There are a number of measures of absence duration. The main ones are: the average duration per spell and the average duration per person

Bradford Scores

In organisations where the majority of staff work shifts and rotas, the disruption caused by frequent short term absences is often greater than that caused by occasional long term absences.

The Bradford factor measures an employees irregularity of attendance by combining measures of absence frequency and duration.These scores indicate the composition of an individual’s sickness absence record comprises a few, or many, spells of short or long duration. They can be used to monitor trends in sickness absence and are one way to provide ‘trigger’ points.

Trigger Points

One of the main uses of sickness absence information is to highlight those staff on whom the line manager should focus attention. An increasingly common way of doing this is to set parameters or “triggers” which can help to determine where and when action is needed. The attendance record of individual employees may then be monitored against set criteria.

Triggers fall into two broad categories:

  • informal arrangements where periodic reviews of an employee’s sickness absence pattern are undertaken and it is left to the manager to determine whether any action is required
  • more tightly specified absence thresholds are used by some employers to identify when managers should introduce a formal review, counselling, reference to occupational health, or taking disciplinary action.

Typical triggers may be:

  • cumulative days absence in a set period
  • number of spells in a set period
  • combinations of days and spells
  • pattern related


Clearly, benchmarking absence levels must be done with great care, given the number of different absence measures which are available and the variety of definitions which can be applied.

However, attendance management is one area where comparative performance measurement can be used to identify best practice and improve. performance in key processes eg operational procedures, policies andguidelines orinformation management.

The characteristics of low, medium and high performers for eachkey factor can be identified and an organisation can rate its performance against the criteria, establish differences in process against the benchmark and target future performance.

Costing Absence

Costing sickness absence and communicating that cost to employees, is a powerful way of emphasising the importance to the business of attendance. However, few organisations have mechanisms to identify absence costs and fewer still actually examine them systematically.

The main direct cost components are:

  • occupational sick pay
  • statutory sick pay
  • temporary cover
  • additional overtime costs
  • lost production or service provision

Indirect costs of sickness absence include:

  • increased management, administrative and clerical time
  • interrupted work flow
  • lower productivity
  • reduced quality and costs of lost materials
  • loss of customers

Audiences for Absence Data

Collecting and analysing absence data cannot by itself, reduce levels of absence. So, how can data on absence be used to improve attendance? Key management audiences for absence data include:

  • senior managers
  • HR professionals
  • Line managers

Providing senior managers with data which helps them to answer questions about the extent, nature and costs of employee absence will help them make better decisions about priorities and resources.

HR professionals have several roles: to ensure that measurement and monitoring systems are effective, in advising senior managers, in designing and delivering training support for line managers, in formulating attendance management policies and acting as internal support to line managers.

Absence data need to be made accessible if line managers, who probably have most influence over attendance, are to use them. This may be achieved through departmental/location breakdowns and summary data on individuals.

Whatever use absence data is put to, it is essential that their collection and analysis does not remain an end in itself. Such data provide a powerful insight into the nature of any attendance problem and represent a vehicle through which practical solutions can be targeted.


The report

Measuring and Monitoring Absence from Work, Seccombe I. Report 288, Institute for Employment Studies, 1995.

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