A high level of unscheduled leave would be alarming to most organisations. IP Australia calmly tackled the issue with a double-headed, manager-focused strategy.
In 2018, IP Australia, the Australian government agency that administers intellectual property rights and legislation, was concerned about unscheduled leave. On average, 12.1 days were being taken per full-time employee – higher than the 11.4-day average of the Australian Public Service. In the 2018-19 financial year, IP Australia was expecting the average to increase to 12.84 days.
Unscheduled leave refers to all unplanned leave, including that resulting from sickness, carer’s responsibilities and miscellaneous causes, such as deaths, emergencies and any unauthorised absences.
“We know unscheduled leave costs organisations significantly in leave liability alone. You’ve also got to take into account hidden costs, like impact on productivity or manager workloads,” says Leonie Graham CPHR, who was assistant director, people support at the time she decided to do something about this issue.
For the AHRI Practising Certification (APC) program, Graham, who is now director of people support, made decreasing unscheduled leave her capstone project. She began with a four-month pilot limited to 160 employees in an area of the agency with a particularly high average of unscheduled leave – sitting at 14.52 days a year.
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“The problem often comes down to managers not really understanding what’s behind unscheduled leave and not feeling confident to explore it with team members in order to work out the right support,” she says. For that reason, her strategy focused on managers through “two main plans of attack”.
The first, aimed at mid-level managers, looked at early intervention.
“We ran reports from our HR information systems to determine which employees had used five or more days of unscheduled leave in the previous month, then we contacted their managers and asked them if they were aware of what was going on and discussed how to address it.”
Rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all approach, Graham and her team encouraged managers to ask questions and consider each employee’s unique situation. For example, if injury causes absence, a solution might be to adapt the work environment. But in the case of leave motivated by unhappiness in the workplace, a better solution is to work with these employees to address their engagement, this might be looking to reshape their role or even look at alternative roles.
“The research shows the longer someone is off work, the harder it is for them to return,” says Graham. “It’s important to keep absent employees engaged and informed and make sure they know they’re supported, so they’re likely to return sooner rather than later.”
The initial leave report was followed up with monthly ones, allowing Graham and her team to see how employees were faring. If there were no improvements, further contact was made with managers.
The second plan of attack was a monthly series of action learning sessions that involved senior leaders. During each session, a leader presented a real-life attendance management issue and explored it with the group of their peers. All participants were encouraged to ask questions, give various perspectives and suggest a range of ways forward.
“This approach provided a very rounded picture because there was such a variety of experience within each group,” says Graham. “While some had never touched unscheduled leave issues before, others were very experienced. Some believed in a firm response, while others argued for more empathy.
“The activity raised awareness of the many and varied issues that can underlie absence, from too much work to not enough, to a need for flexibility, to an employee feeling undervalued by a manager.”
Together, the plans of attack yielded results as the pilot group saw a 0.3-day reduction in unscheduled leave per full-time employee, bringing the average down from 14.52 to 14.21 days a year. This in turn reduced IP Australia’s average by 0.1 day per full-time employee.
In addition to this quantitative result, there was a qualitative result. Senior managers expressed an increase in confidence – from “somewhat confident” to “very confident” – when it came to managing attendance and approaching HR and colleagues. For mid-level managers, the qualitative results were neutral; their confidence remained the same at the end of the pilot.
Graham believes better results for mid-level managers could be achieved through earlier intervention and more-timely reporting.
“Many managers were dealing with employees who had been off work for some time, so we had already missed the opportunity to intervene early. Others felt our reporting came too late, after issues had been resolved. So, while it was good in principle, it didn’t help much in practice.”
These considerations into managing unscheduled leave are already being incorporated into the broader workforce strategies currently underway.
Graham says undertaking the APC program was “fascinating”.
“A lot of my HR experience was in case management and I wanted broader knowledge. The program enabled me to explore aspects of HR that I hadn’t before and develop a strategic approach to workforce management,” she says.
“I also learned how to talk about HR at IP Australia – especially with executive leadership group – and to show just how powerful HR can be and how much value it can add.”
This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of HRM magazine.