Not even two weeks into January and a Schools Week headline stated ‘Cover costs soar as teacher shortages and illness bite’. Despite the New Year and new term, levels of staff absences in schools familiar to those from the beginning of December are already back with us – or perhaps they simply never left.

Now you can’t stop staff from falling ill, but we all know it’s not just sickness that contributes to a surge in absences. And staff absences are an area that our Director, Adam Watson, says his customers are rather passionate about. 

He focussed his first webinar of the year on what schools can be doing to regain some semblance of control over staff attendance levels. We’ve wrapped his thoughts up below, and we’ll leave it with you to decide how coincidental the webinar taking place on Friday 13th was…

Managing staff absences in schools

It’s been over three years since we rolled out our HR management software for schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs). We’re on a mission to help organisations to achieve more consistent people-management processes by uniting all aspects of HR in one, central place. 

Given that over 1,600 schools are using Every HR’s range of modules, we’re quick to spot the areas they’re most keen to centralise. And staff absences is leading the way.

Having worked in education since 1997, it still fascinates me how all schools follow certain frameworks, but all schools have such different nuances for managing things like staff contracts, pay, and you guessed it – absences.

The impact of Covid-19 on sickness and absence policies

With the tumultuous nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been a strange few years for absence management! Short of the increase in staff being off due to Covid-19 illness or mandatory stay-at-home policies, HR teams have faced an uphill scramble – to both protect employees’ and students’ health whilst also ensuring sufficient staffing levels to keep schools operating.

Now that we’re seemingly out of the worst of it, there’s a new challenge for HR: updating policies relating to absence and sickness to reflect another ‘new norm’. Schools are trying to move away from the general expectation of logging Covid-19-related absences as special cases. And instead, recognising them as a type of sickness.

With our better understanding of Covid-19 and its range of symptoms – varying from asymptomatic to cold-like – we can make more informed decisions when it comes to absences. And hopefully, work to keep schools up and running with minimal disruption.

How to use Every HR to manage staff absences

An ideal world would have staff immune to sickness and sniffles. They’re not, of course, but there are ways that you can pre-empt spikes in absences relating to illness. Meaning you can put proactive means into place to limit the spread of the illness and predict required supply cover.

For MATs, having an overview of absences across the entire trust – including individual schools – is the fairy godmother when it comes to improving employee attendance! The interactive dashboard on our Absence Management module gives instant access to absence stats. From here, you can use filters to drill-down absences by factors like school, type, duration, and department to quickly build a picture of attendance.

With your selected data presented in an interactive graph, the real fun begins. Got one school with a significantly lower rate of staff attendance? Use the filters to delve deeper into the detail – if absences are concentrated in one department, that could signify a significant personnel issue.

Other questions the data in Every HR can help you to answer include:

  • Is there a spike in absences around a particularly stressful date, like an inspection?
  • Are there absences from particular employees that follow termly trends?
  • Is there a pattern in the types of absence that occur over certain days, like Mondays and Fridays?

Controlling what you can control

The way we see it, managing absences is about controlling what you can control, and it’s two-fold. Firstly, using the raw information in front of you to put interventions in place that work to improve the attendance of an individual, department, or entire school. Secondly, it’s spotting tangible opportunities to keep spend in check. That includes:

  • Optimising supply cover
  • Knowing who’s on long-term sick pay to make sure it’s been properly forecasted for in school budgets
  • Keeping tabs on contract changes (i.e. full-time to part-time) and updating things like holiday allowance and absence triggers are updated

For instance, there’s a MAT using Every HR to manage its 400 staff. Each term, they see an average of 50 contract changes(!). Meaning, roughly 10% of their staff’s working hours, payroll, and holiday details need updating in line with their altered contracts. Talk about a resource-intensive activity!

Linking absence management with MIS and payroll 

That’s where this MAT truly sees the impact of our end-to-end HR system. Integrating with both school MIS and payroll, Every HR processes the multitude of information needed to keep all-things employee up-to-date and accurate. Rather than going unaccounted for, an employee’s unpaid absence is reflected in the payroll process. This contributes to the funding needed to employ a member of supply staff.

And the same goes for the bigger picture of the overall school budget. Staff contracts stored in Every HR can be linked to overall budget management systems, like IRIS Financial Planner and SBS Budgets. Meaning, you can forecast the staffing costs for a number of scenarios that involve different staff contracts – and costs. That keeps decision-making surrounding your expenditure current and informed.

Why short term absences are as important as long term

So, back to the question at hand – how does this help schools to regain control over staff absences? Well, giving short-term absences as much attention as those long-term is definitely a good place to start!

Managers are often given very little notice of one-day absences. They might be short by nature, but they’re incredibly disruptive – supply cover needs sourcing pronto, and lessons are usually disrupted. This can feed into reduced performance of students in the classroom, as well as lower staff morale.

If you’ve got a member of staff that takes a day off here and there more than others, bet that your team will have noticed. And probably feel a bit begrudged. No manager wants to have the reputation that they don’t have a grip over their team’s attendance – but if their approach to absence management is lax, they’re running the risk.

A culture of ultimate flexibility puts you in a difficult place.

It’s true – it’s far harder to refuse absence requests and manage attendance when you’ve set a low precedence!

As Adam asked the webinar’s attendees, “how many staff at your school can you honestly say know the number of absences that trigger a review meeting?”. Probably not as many as you’d hope!

Why you need pre-emptive absence triggers

The standard absence policy usually includes trigger points that cause concern and prompt investigations. For example: ‘Three occasions, or ten working days or more, of absence in a rolling three months’ period’. But a lot of employees are oblivious to the numbers or patterns of absences that could cause a trigger.

Because of this, our Absence Management module lets schools and trusts set their own precautionary triggers to prevent the actual trigger – and the ripples of disruption – being hit. In the instance above, that could be for a staff member hitting seven working days of absence in two months, for example.

A flurry of short-term absences for an individual could just be a series of unfortunate events – like their own sickness or having to take time off to look after their own unwell children. Hitting the precautionary trigger allows an open conversation between manager and employee, working to discuss, explain, and limit any more instances of time off that could otherwise prompt a full absence investigation.

And if further enquiries were required? All absence instances are securely stored in Every HR and can be turned into detailed absence reports to inform disciplinary action on attendance or capability grounds. Those reviewing the absence case are supported by a complete audit trail of:

  • Records of absences
  • Triggers hit
  • Meetings had
  • Actions taken

to keep judgements fair and consistent to all individuals across the entire organisation.

One of the handiest features of them all is that you can decide who your trigger notifications go to, cutting out any unnecessary staff involvement. For example, low-level triggers might be more suited to the individual school. Long-term or pre-emptive triggers might require attention of your trust’s central HR team.

Improving staff attendance in 2023

And voila, you’ve got Adam’s basics of how to regain some sense of control over staff absences at your school or trust this year! The features of Every HR that we’ve explored are only the bare bones of what makes our Absence Management module so trusted – it also takes into account time off in lieu (TOIL), lets employees access their own attendance records, and so much more!

For all the details on how we can support you to improved attendance rates, get in touch!