Winter usually sees high numbers of flu cases, with the addition in more recent years of RSV, Scarlet Fever, Covid and, of course, the usual common cold. In fact, in 2023, Schools Week reported that school staff absences doubled in the autumn term compared to pre-Covid 2019.
Unsurprisingly, this places immense pressure on schools and has been known to prompt unions to request support from the government to cover the cost of supply staff. Many schools and trusts will also review their absence management in these circumstances.
Of course, there will always be absences that can't be prevented, but what can schools do to reduce those that can?
Schools and trusts often focus on their Absence Management Policies, which can be effective in lowering absences; however, this alone will not result in a significant improvement and simply ‘tightening this up’ focuses on individual cases rather than the root cause.
How do you begin to analyse absences within your setting?
Simply comparing the number of absences this year with previous years doesn't go far enough. At first glance, one school within a trust may appear to have a higher absence rate than other schools. But it's important to note that maternity and absences related to serious illness may skew data, and further analysis may show that in terms of general illness, the School outperforms others within the Trust.
Limited information provided when reporting absence is also a factor. For instance, the term ‘General Illness’ is too broad and open to interpretation; it may even include chronic and long-term illness absences. Accurate recording, on the other hand, using subcategories allows these absences to be viewed separately from colds, flu, and other minor illnesses. Consecutive absences must also be recorded as a total period rather than individual days to analyse the data correctly.
Accurately recording absences will allow you to identify trends and patterns for individuals and the School or Trust as a whole. Consider the average length of an absence, the number of instances, and whether they are dominated by a few individuals, a particular department, or spread throughout your organisation. If there are members of staff who appear regularly in your absence reports, but you are unaware of any underlying health issues, could these regular occurrences indicate a different issue? Accurate data will allow you to identify any potential absence patterns and confidently manage these situations.
A high number of mental health-related and repeated single absences may be reduced by focusing on wellbeing and utilising an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Analysing absence types within each setting will allow you to focus on the cause of these and how to reduce them. Similarly, you should consider whether any environmental factors should be investigated. The winter of 2022, for example, prompted unions to request support from the government to improve ventilation in schools to prevent the spread of infection. Could you implement something in this instance to help reduce absences?
Trusts may also benefit from comparing absence data across the organisation to identify schools performing well and investigate and adopt their strategies to support other schools within the trust.
However, it is crucial to look beyond the statistics and investigate individual examples to ensure initial assumptions are correct, cross-checking against your HR records and your knowledge of the individuals. Suppose an employee’s absence is related to a disability or medical condition, it would be appropriate to make reasonable adjustments to your expectations of attendance and consider this when making conclusions about the data as a whole.
How to monitor sickness absence
While the need for accurate data is evident in helping reduce specific causes of absence, the actual process remains a significant factor. Unfortunately, this often involves using countless systems, spreadsheets and form-checking, which takes time and resources that are only sometimes available.
Absence Management and Reporting software will heavily reduce the time taken to obtain data, reduce miscalculations and provide initial areas for investigation to help reduce absences in school.
Our intuitive Insights platform allows schools and trusts to view infographics that support the user in identifying trends, which can then be explored in more detail. Filtering options also enable data to be split-viewed across the trust, multiple schools, or individual schools, allowing for segmentation by role and absence type or absence instances. Potential trends, patterns and areas of concern can be investigated using the raw data to test any likely assumptions. And once you have identified these areas for development, you can begin to explore the causes of these absence types and consider plans to combat them.
Absence is inevitable, but analysing your data will provide you with a more accurate understanding of these, allowing you to focus on the areas where you can ultimately reduce absence at work.